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Vikings are tied, but behind, in NFC playoff race

Sunday's loss in Tampa Bay dropped the Vikings to 5-5 on the season, but the coaching staff was quick to point out that a division title is still within grasp.

"Six weeks to go and we're all tied up in our division," explained Vikings head coach Brad Childress when addressing the media Monday. "So it will be a race to the finish and you expect that in the NFL every week."

He's wrong.

No longer in a race to the finish line, the Vikings can only hope to keep pace.

Just like his game-day mentality, it seems Childress simply wants to keep it close and try to pull it off in the end.

A month ago the team was in a similar situation.

Minnesota had just kicked a last-second field goal to beat the Detroit Lions and even up the record at 3-3. That win thrust the Vikings into a first-place tie with Chicago and Green Bay.

"Feels good, first place," were the sentiments of Vikings owner Zygi Wilf after the game.

Content with the win and a share of first place, Chilly stuck with the game plan.

Now, a month later, those same teams are again locked in a three-way tie to be the best of the NFC North.

Except some key things have changed, which make it nearly impossible for the Vikings to earn the division title.

The future of the defensive line has reached an unparalleled point. Though unlikely, the Vikings could quite possibly lose all four of their starters to suspensions.

Currently under appeal, if the NFL upholds its steroids policy the suspensions of Kevin and Pat Williams are inevitable.

Jared Allen and Ray Edwards could also face suspension as Commissioner Roger Goodell continues to crack down on quarterback safety.

Allen received a formal warning from the league Wednesday along with a $25,000 fine for late hits.

With eight linemen on the roster, a loss of all four starters would be a catastrophic.

Along with any potential suspensions, the Vikings face a more difficult schedule than both Chicago and Green Bay. They finish the season with three-straight games against opponents with winning records. The Bears and Packers combined, have only one.

Chicago's final six opponents have a combined record of 24-36. Green Bay is in a similar position; their opponents have gone 25-35, with 8-2 Carolina the only winning team they will face.

The purple aren't so lucky, their opponents are six games over .500 at 31-29, which includes the Detroit Lions. If you take that game out their opponents are a staggering 31-19.

The Vikings last three games, Arizona, Atlanta and the New York Giants, are among the toughest in the NFL.

The Cardinals are a team that currently sits at 7-3 and could be fighting for a first-round bye in the playoffs.

At 6-4 the Falcons have been a surprise all season and have already defeated the Lions, Bears and Packers.

Finally, the Giants have the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but even if they have nothing to play for don't expect an easy game.

Remember last year's Super Bowl preview in the final game of the season?

With no way to improve their playoff seeding, the Giants still came out with a must-win attitude and nearly knocked off the Patriots.

Purely looking at records, Sunday's game against the Jaguars is technically one of the 'easy' games.

But Minnesota has never played in Jacksonville and Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio has never lost a game to an NFC opponent at home: he's a perfect 10-0.

Childress has had many chances to get his team on the inside track to a division title this year, but failed to do so. Now, it could be too late.

If the Vikings are in a race, it should be similar to the one they were in three years ago when they sprinted ahead of the pack to sign a new head coach.

TJ Melcher can be heard on The Football Show on Mondays at 6 p.m. on KBUN-AM 1450. He can be reached via e-mail at