One of the things that makes the NFL great is how quickly fortunes can turn. Last year at this time, Denver was the talk of the NFL. The Broncos got off to a 6-0 start, only to collapse from that point on – losing eight of their final 10 games. On the flip side of that coin, San Diego started the 2009 season at 2-3, but then won its final 11 games of the regular season to finish 13-3.
What both of those teams showed is that a team can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in a short period of time. We're only six weeks into the season and the funeral march is already being played on the Cowboys, who have played just five games.
In a 24-hour news world covering the NFL, there is a sense of paralysis by over-analysis. The Bears were viewed as a legitimate playoff contender after getting off to a strong start. Then they got done by the Giants, exposing the numerous flaws in their team. In the blink of an eye, discussion of Chicago had them from competing for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl to be just another team capable of being torched.
Last weekend was a perfect storm for the Vikings. Entering the week, there were only two teams in the NFC that had one loss – the improbable Bears and Buccaneers. Both of them got beat. Green Bay got beat. Detroit got beat. It couldn't have been scripted any better. Suddenly all 16 teams in the NFC have two or more losses and nobody (like the Vikings and Saints last year) is running away with the quest for home field. Parity is alive and well.
The ability for one's standing to change so markedly in the space of one week was one of the reasons the Vikings said there was no panic involved in their preparation for the Cowboys. A battle of 1-3 teams that had already had their bye weeks, another loss within the conference could be a crippling blow to their postseason aspirations. Linebacker Ben Leber said the players didn't get overly concerned because they knew that if they did their business, their outlook would improve. He couldn't have envisioned how quickly that change would take place.
"I think that's why, last week, we had a sense of urgency, but weren't panicked about how is this thing going to play out or what position are we going to be in," Leber said. "We just knew that we had to take care of the Dallas game and the mindset was to win that game and have everything play out after that. How quickly, in just that one day with Chicago and Green Bay both losing, things can turn around. That's the mentality that we had – anything is possible. It's the same situation this weekend – go out, take care of business and try to get a win in the division. That would be huge."
The Vikings were appreciative of the assist other teams gave them in their postseason quest, but, despite beating Dallas Sunday, there isn't any reason not to start feeling good about themselves or their position in the wide open NFC playoff chase.
"We've still got that sense of urgency," offensive lineman Phil Loadholt said. "We're glad things worked out as well. It's been up and down for everybody in the NFC, so there is an opportunity for us. We're still not sitting where we want to be sitting, so that sense of urgency is still there. We have three losses, so there isn't any reason for that sense of urgency to go away."
Keeping the focus on the game at hand and not getting too high after wins or too low after losses is the key for team success in the NFL, according to defensive end Ray Edwards. Changes such as what happened to the NFC standings last weekend aren't that uncommon and those who can pick up momentum climb those charts in a hurry.
"That's the thing about the NFL," Edwards said. "Things can change big in one week. Half the league loses every week and half the league wins. You can be way back and, you put together a few wins in a row and suddenly you're right back in it and everyone is talking about you as being a great team again. It's funny what winning can do."
The ups and downs of franchises within a season are typically noticed early. There are plenty of stats surrounding the chances of a team that starts 0-2 or 1-3 or 1-4 of making the postseason, and there is plenty of notice given to teams playing strong in the month of December. But the jostling that goes on between teams during the season is what makes or breaks a season.
Last year, wide receiver Greg Camarillo was with the Dolphins. His team was in the playoff hunt and, by virtue of a season sweep of the division rival Jets, the Dolphins virtually controlled their own destiny at 7-6 to make the playoffs. Three wins and they were in. When the Jets dropped to 7-7 that same week, coach Rex Ryan lamented their season being done. Instead, Miami lost their last three games, the Jets won their last two and made a Super Bowl run that got them within a half of going to the Super Bowl. Things can change quickly.
"They were counting themselves out at one point," Camarillo said. "They needed to win their last couple of games and a bunch of other teams had to lose. We were one of them. We were 7-6 and looking at the playoffs. We lost our last three games and ended up out of it. They won their last couple and went on a run."
The key to riding the wave to the playoffs is not to get caught up in the attention certain games receive. To hear the media talk about their first four games coming out of the bye week wasn't what the players wanted to hear. As they were preparing for Dallas, they weren't thinking about road games at Green Bay or New England on the horizon.
Antoine Winfield, no stranger to playoff races, said that the media spends a lot of time looking forward and backward. Players are more like horses with blinders on – they only look immediately ahead and only at what is in their line of sight.
"You have to take it week to week, because things change fast," Winfield said. "That's why you're taught to never look too far ahead and just focus on the game in front of you. If you come in too confident, that's when you slip up and take a step backward. We're right back in it and, if we beat Green Bay, we're at .500 and they're at 3-4. We're still chasing Chicago and Green Bay, but, if we start stacking wins, we'll get there."
The Vikings are no strangers to stacking wins. In 2007, a five-game winning streak late in the season put them within one win of guaranteeing themselves a playoff spot (they failed to beat Washington and, after losing the next week, finished out of the playoffs at 8-8). In 2008, the Vikings had a four-game winning streak and won five of the last six games to lock down the North Division title. Last year, the Vikings had winning streaks of six and four games.
For the players who have been part of those teams, like veteran offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, that experience and the knowledge that the Vikings have to talent to rattle off winning streaks that last a month or more is something that keeps them motivated and not worrying about being at .500 through five games.
"This team knows what we're capable of doing," McKinnie said. "We have a team that has won a lot of games and can win a lot more. When we're playing our game, we believe we can win every game. We can run off a lot of wins. We know that."
So as NBC continues to trumpet the matchup between the Vikings and Packers, or, as the promos seem to believe, Brett Favre vs. the City of Green Bay, the Vikings are preparing for the Packers the same way they did against the Cowboys. They know there is plenty at stake, it won't end their season if they come up on the short end, but, in a game based on emotion and momentum, they can continue a roll that started with a win over one 2009 playoff team and continue it with a road win at Green Bay.
"Everybody in the division knows that this thing is up for grabs," Leber said. "Anybody could run away with this thing. The Packers are a rival, but, at the same time, they're ahead of us in the division. A win in the division is actually like two games in the standings. That's the important thing. When we played them last year, we were the ones that were ahead and knew we could do a lot of damage to their chances if we beat them. Now the shoe is on the other foot. We're the ones behind them and we need a win now just like they did last year. That's what is pushing all of us this week, not a rivalry with the Packers or Brett going back to Green Bay again."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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