MINNEAPOLIS -- Like the afternoon light on a short December day in Minnesota, the Vikings have been fading fast.
For all the fight they've displayed over the last two months in trying to overcome their offense's injury-influenced limitations, the harsh reality is that the 5-0 start has given way to a 6-6 mark. Victory in the rest of their games is likely the only route to the playoffs, and even in that scenario they'd probably need some help from other teams.
"We'll have to win out," linebacker Anthony Barr said after the Vikings fell 17-15 to league-leading Dallas on Thursday night. "I was hoping to get this win today and go on a run, but hopefully it starts next week."
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The Vikings visit Jacksonville on Dec. 11 before hosting Indianapolis, traveling to Green Bay and wrapping up against Chicago. Finishing on a four-game winning streak, as they did in 2012 to make the playoffs after falling to 6-6, wouldn't be a stunner even with the depleted offensive line and nonfactor running attack. Their 4-6 record in the NFC won't help their tiebreaker cause in the wild-card race, though, and they'd need to finish one game ahead of division-leading Detroit (7-4) to defend their NFC North title.
Games among fellow conference competitors down the stretch will help guarantee some of the losses they'd need, but the crowd of teams in the mix is much bigger than the ones that are out of it.
"Now we go win four in a row. That's our only chance essentially," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "That's our mentality. We've done it before."
There's a chance that star running back Adrian Peterson will return during the final stretch from the right knee he hurt in the second game of the season. Perhaps tackles T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles, repeatedly overmatched by recent opponents with the Vikings up to their seventh starting combination, will settle in and help keep quarterback Sam Bradford from feeling too much pressure. Maybe the defense can repeat the stellar performance it produced against the Cowboys and their potent offense.
The first priority, though, is to get coach Mike Zimmer back after emergency surgery Wednesday night to repair a detached retina in his right eye. That kept him from joining the team against the Cowboys while special teams coordinator Mike Priefer took over the main man's responsibilities.
Vikings players were given off until practice Tuesday morning, with no availability with anyone in the organization scheduled until then. Team spokesman Bob Hagan had no update on the condition of the coach, who was scheduled for a doctor visit Friday.
"He eats, sleeps, drinks football. This is a guy who really wanted to be here tonight for us," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "For him not to be here, we know it probably kind of hurt him a little bit. At the same time, he's got to take care of his health and be ready to roll when he can go."
Zimmer's defense did him proud against Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and the rest of the Cowboys. Minnesota held them to season lows and well under their game averages in first downs, points and yards. Two big whiffs, letting Prescott scramble for 15 yards on third-and-14 and allowing Bryant to get loose in the secondary later on the possession, led to the first touchdown for Dallas. The Cowboys had only one other drive that went longer than 33 yards, and that time Everson Griffen forced a fumble.
"We've got to find a way to win these," Griffen said.