EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - The Minnesota Vikings fully expected to be in the middle of the playoff picture, though they may have taken an unexpected route to this position.
The Atlanta Falcons? It was just about this time last year that their coach abandoned them and their star quarterback was incarcerated for dogfighting.
Nevertheless, when the Falcons (9-5) travel to the Metrodome to face the Vikings (9-5) this afternoon, there will be plenty on the line as this season draws to a close.
With a win or a Chicago loss in the last two weeks, the Vikings will clinch their first division title since 2000. And Minnesota still has a shot at the NFC's second seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.
"It's right here and right in front of our face," receiver Bobby Wade said. "We talk about having control over our own destiny and right now we definitely have control over that with a win."
After starting the season 1-3, the Vikings have won four in a row to jump to the top of the NFC North, where many preseason prognosticators put them after the additions of defensive end Jared Allen, receiver Bernard Berrian and safety Madieu Williams in the offseason.
"I think the excitement is that we're finally playing the way we know we can play," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "The way everybody thought we could play when they gave us those high praises at the start of the season."
For Wade, it feels eerily similar to last year when they got off to a 2-5 start, but won five in a row and needed to beat Washington in Week 16 to all but sew up a wild-card spot.
But the Vikings lost to the Redskins at home, then dropped the season finale at Denver to miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
"I think every guy that was on this team last year ramped it up for this week to treat it as a must-win situation for us," Wade said. "We know that's not the end of everything, but for us it is. So we need to take care of our business this weekend."
The Vikings will give Tarvaris Jackson his second straight start at quarterback. He filled in superbly when Gus Frerotte went down with a lower back injury two weeks ago and wants to finish stronger this season than last.
Jackson has added motivation because he threw two costly interceptions in the first half of the loss last year to the Redskins and wants to lead a stronger finish this time around.
"I thought about that," Jackson said. "Same scenario. We want to make sure that we go out and take care of business."
The Falcons are tied with Dallas and Tampa Bay in the wild-card chase, with Chicago (8-6) one game behind. The stunning success of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and workhorse running back Michael Turner have thrown Atlanta's rebuilding plan into overdrive.
Bobby Petrino bolted for Arkansas with three games to go last year and Michael Vick was jailed on dogfighting charges, throwing Atlanta into complete chaos. Owner Arthur Blank hired Tom Dimitroff away from New England to be the GM and then replaced Petrino with Mike Smith.
The two drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick and the stabilizing force provided by all three has helped make the Falcons one of the surprise teams in the league.
"Really it's been a process and we really haven't looked at where we are going or where we have been," Smith said. "We are just kind of taking it game by game and we've set milestones and we have been able to reach them."
Their first goal was to never lose back-to-back games this season. So far, they have accomplished that, a remarkable level of consistency for such a young team.
"We knew that if we could do those things and not put back-to-back losses together, that as you got into December you are going to look up and say, 'Gosh, we are in a pretty good position right now, and that is kind of how we've approached this," Smith said. "We are very encouraged by what this football team has done in 2008."
And here they are.
The Falcons finish with the game at Minnesota and at home against St. Louis. If the playoffs started today, Atlanta would be left out because Dallas and Tampa Bay have better conference records.
"Hopefully that highlight is still to come," Ryan said when asked if there was one particular moment that has stood out during this impressive run this season. "I think that is the focus of everybody right now."