MINNEAPOLIS -- Dalvin Cook was asked how the Minnesota Vikings, on a three-game win streak, would manage a heightened set of expectations in their next stretch against three teams with six total wins among them.
"Just letting the team know that these are NFL teams," Cook said last week. "They still have NFL players. We've got to go out here and compete. And most importantly, it's about us getting better. If we want to go into the right direction, we can't make it about the Dallas Cowboys or the Jacksonville Jaguars. We've got to make it about the Minnesota Vikings getting better each and every week."
If Minnesota could take advantage of three home games against the Cowboys, Carolina Panthers and Jaguars, the story entering the final stretch of December would be an exciting one -- six straight wins and a 7-5 record after their 1-5 start.
But the Vikings stumbled with their first leg of that stretch, losing to the Cowboys 31-28 on Sunday. And for a Vikings team that already had little room for error in making a push toward earning one of the final spots in the NFC playoffs, they have even less leeway going forward.
According to ESPN's Football Power Index, a rating system that uses a team's predictive offensive, defensive and special teams value as measured by expected points added, Minnesota had a 32.3% chance to make the playoffs entering Week 10. That likelihood dropped to 16.8% after the Dallas loss.
With the 25th-hardest remaining strength of schedule, even facing teams like the Detroit Lions, who got blown out by Carolina, and the fading Chicago Bears, the Vikings don't have a clear shot at the postseason.
A couple of scenarios are worth looking at to determine what it will take for Minnesota to stay in the playoff hunt. With a 4-6 record, the Vikings are two games behind the No. 7-seed Arizona Cardinals in the expanded playoff format.
One way for them to secure the seventh seed is to win out. ESPN's FPI gives that a 1.7% chance of happening. The Vikings still have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) and New Orleans Saints (8-2), both on the road.
Let's consider some other scenarios. With Carolina and Jacksonville upcoming in Weeks 12 and 13, two wins would up the Vikings' chances of making the playoffs to 27%. The Panthers played a backup quarterback (P.J. Walker) in a rout of Detroit on Sunday. The reason there's no opening line on Sunday's Vikings-Panthers game likely has to do with the status of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who missed Week 11 with a knee injury. Minnesota also needs to prepare for the possibility of Gardner Minshew being back under center for the Jaguars in two weeks.
Like Cook said, no team Minnesota faces down the stretch can be taken lightly. The defense that found solutions in Weeks 8-10 supplied a major letdown against Dallas. But for the sake of these projections, let's say the Vikings beat the teams they're supposed to the rest of the way -- wins over Carolina, Jacksonville, Chicago and Detroit -- coupled with two losses to the Bucs and the Saints. Minnesota would still have only a 21% chance of making the playoffs.
Things would change drastically for the Vikings if they're able to steal a game most will expect them to lose. If they win the games against teams with worse records plus Chicago and beat Tampa Bay, their chances of getting a wild-card spot go up to 87%. If they beat Carolina, Jacksonville, Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit, their postseason chances are at 77%.
There are thousands of scenarios to take into account when projecting Minnesota's playoff odds, but those are just a few that make it less confusing than determining every probability based on 31 other teams' schedules.
One thing that could help Minnesota? The NFC West race down the stretch, especially in Week 16 with the Los Angeles Rams vs. the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Arizona Cardinals and Week 17 with the Seahawks vs. 49ers and the Cardinals vs. Rams. That could lead to some jockeying for positioning in a division that projects three of its teams in the postseason and another, like the Vikings in the NFC North, getting into the mix.
The line between remaining in the playoff hunt and starting to think of ways to be competitive in 2021 is thin. The Vikings aren't back to where they were before the Week 7 bye, considering whether they should rebuild. They've pushed things far enough to this point to remain in the conversation, but there is little room for error the rest of the way.
"We know what's up," Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "We definitely know what's up. But at the same time we're still trying to take it one game at a time. We've got to win that game at hand. We've got to focus on that game, focus on what they've got in store for us, and we've got to go out there, we've got to execute, we've got to make plays when it's crunch time.
"We've got to have energy on the sidelines, and we've got to keep it up. We've got to do it perfect. We can't be making little mistakes that are going to lead us to losing the game."