NFC North not enough for hungry Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS — With the NFC North title in hand, the Minnesota Vikings have guaranteed themselves a home game to start the playoffs.

Now it’s time to schedule it for the second weekend in January, rather than the first.

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“We’re still playing for seeding. We would like to play, if possible, every game at U.S. Bank Stadium,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I know we’re going to get one, but we’re kind of greedy.”

After beating the Cincinnati Bengals 34-7 on Sunday , the Vikings (11-3) shifted their attention toward Green Bay for a game this Saturday night against the rival Packers (7-7). Following months of dismissals of the bigger postseason picture, perfecting the company line about their singular focus on just the current opponent, they’ve finally given themselves permission to speak openly about securing at least second place in the conference and the first-round bye that comes with it.

“We want to get back out here and play in front of these fans who have been amazing all year,” running back Latavius Murray said.

The Super Bowl, for those who haven’t heard, is conveniently located in Minnesota this season. No team has ever played in the big game in its home stadium.

“Everything we want is still out in front of us,” quarterback Case Keenum said.

That’s why the Vikings, though they proudly wore their gray division champion hats after the game, were relatively restrained with their celebration.

“Because we have a lot of work to do,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said.

That dream scenario of playing the entire postseason at home probably won’t materialize. Philadelphia has a one-game lead on the Vikings and the tiebreaker edge, so one more win by the Eagles will give them the top seed. They host Oakland (6-8) and Dallas (8-6) in their last two games. A loss by the Vikings to the Packers would also seal home-field advantage for the Eagles, though the Packers were eliminated from the race when Atlanta beat Tampa Bay on Monday night. That raised the possibility that quarterback Aaron Rodgers would sit out for the remainder of the season to protect his surgically repaired collarbone.

The Eagles, now playing without starting quarterback Carson Wentz, could always lose their first playoff game, though. That would create an opportunity for the Vikings to host the NFC championship game, an event that hasn’t been held in Minnesota since the 1998 season.

Even if the Vikings beat the Packers on Saturday night, they’ll have to wait until Sunday afternoon to learn whether or not they’ve wrapped up a bye. If Carolina (10-4) wins the NFC South, that would require the Vikings to finish ahead of the Panthers because of their loss to them on Dec. 10. The Panthers host Tampa Bay (4-10) and play at Atlanta (9-5) to finish their schedule.

Where the Vikings would get a break if they were to lose to the Packers is from New Orleans (10-4), the team they beat in the season opener. The Saints beat the Panthers twice and would thus win a tiebreaker for the division title, so if they win out against Atlanta and at Tampa Bay they’ll relegate the Panthers to a wild card spot.

“We’ve been saying for a while that these wins don’t really mean anything yet, and yesterday we were able to accomplish something with it and get the division,” right guard Joe Berger said on Monday. “So it’s one step in what we want to get done this year. We’ve just got to keep it going.”

The bye isn’t a prerequisite for a super Bowl appearance, but it’s an important ingredient. Baltimore in 2012 was the last team to reach the final game without one of the top two seeds in its conference. The previous two champions, the New York Giants in 2011 and the Packers in 2010, also needed four wins for their rings.

Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph was on that Giants team, as a matter of fact.

“Everybody is tuned in. Everybody wants to be great,” Joseph said. “So it’s a good feeling.”