Clinching NFC North would give Vikings chance to fulfill their 'competitive rebuild'

Quarterback Kirk Cousins, coach Kevin O'Connell and the rest of the Vikings are closing in on a NFC North title. Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings' charmed season could hit its first tangible benefit this weekend. If two reasonable outcomes fall in their favor, the Vikings will become the season's first team to win a division title.

And whether it happens this Sunday or next, their inevitable clinching will usher in a decidedly unexpected circumstance: At least a month of games will remain with little to play for other than a position or two in the 2022 NFC playoff seeding. No one in the Vikings organization is ready to address it publicly, but it would be a rare and potentially useful turn of events for a franchise that has concentrated its playing time within a relatively small circle of players -- and is also in the first season of what general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has called a "competitive rebuild."

Coach Kevin O'Connell understandably waved off conversations about a division title and what could come next, saying that he has asked players to "fight the urge to look big-picture at the scenarios and all those things."

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said "you get yourself in trouble" by looking too far ahead, and quarterback Kirk Cousins added: "For me, ignorance is bliss. I just know that we want to go 1-0 this week."

We don't have to abide by those rules so let's look ahead at the stakes for this weekend.

If the Vikings beat the New York Jets on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), and the Jacksonville Jaguars defeat or tie the Detroit Lions, the Vikings will clinch the NFC North. It would be just the fourth time since divisional realignment in 2002 that a team has clinched a division with five weeks left in a season. ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) likes the chances of that outcome, giving the Vikings a 70% chance of winning while putting the Jaguars' odds at 57%.

Now, let's consider the state of the Vikings' roster. In part because of good health, the historic number of close games, and personnel decisions, the Vikings have used a rotation of the same 27 or 28 players among the 22 offensive and defensive positions in every game. The Vikings have 27 players with at least 200 offensive or defensive snaps, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and a handful of skill position players that play virtually every snap.

Of those 27 players, seven are at least 30 years old. On Wednesday, O'Connell mentioned two young players -- inside linebacker Brian Asamoah II (22 years old) and safety Josh Metellus (24) -- he would like to find ways to get onto the field beyond special teams. To this point, however, Asamoah has played 29 defensive snaps, while most of Metellus' 107 snaps came in a Week 3 start for the injured Smith.

"Ultimately," O'Connell said, "I see [playing time] as week-to-week, game-to-game, and whatever we think as a coaching staff puts our players in the best possible situations to have success against that particular opponent."

But O'Connell could soon be in position to tweak that approach, with an opportunity to align with the tenets of a competitive rebuild: to preserve the health of his stars for the playoffs while giving some younger players valuable experience.

If they clinch the division this weekend, the Vikings will still have five games remaining on their schedule. They would remain alive for the No. 1 overall seed, a position that would give them home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but they would need to make up two games over the Philadelphia Eagles because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. (The Eagles beat the Vikings 24-7 in Week 2.) FPI gives that a 20.6% chance of happening even if they win Sunday and the Eagles lose to the Tennessee Titans. (It's 7.8% if the Vikings and Eagles win.)

The Vikings also would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Dallas Cowboys, who would be poised to catch the Eagles for the NFC East title if they falter. More realistically, the Vikings will be playing to keep the No. 2 seed, which guarantees a second home playoff game with a victory in the wild-card round and potentially a third home game if the top seed loses prior to the NFC Championship Game.

It's rare for such a conversation to be relevant at this point in a season, and the Vikings still need cooperation from other teams before they can clinch. But thanks to their success in an otherwise down year in the NFC North, the Vikings are in position for some heady choices that even the most optimistic observers could not have expected.