As the Minnesota Vikings prepare for the defense of their NFC North title, the biggest hurdle they may be facing is the recent history of the NFL.
Unlike other sports, where the rise of fall of organizations tends to come in longer arcs – teams are typically better (or worse) for longer. In baseball, teams can go a decade or longer – sometimes much longer – without getting a sniff of the postseason. In the NFL, teams rise and fall much faster, going from first to worst, being successful for two or three seasons and then falling back to the cellar of the division.
A team like the New Orleans Saints can string together a season in which its offense is on fire and its defense makes just enough plays to allow fewer points than Drew Brees could muster and rode that to a title. The Saints haven’t come even close in the six years since. The Denver Broncos are the defending Super Bowl champions, yet, given their current circumstances, just as many people think they won’t repeat as division champs, much less Super Bowl champs. That’s how fast things change in the NFL.
In the last two years alone, eight of the 16 AFC teams and eight of the 16 NFC teams have made the playoffs. When half of a league can make the playoffs in just a two-span, getting there is difficult. Holding onto a playoff spot isn’t any easier.
In 2014, 12 teams won 10 or more games. In 2015, 11 teams won 10 or more games. Of those 11, seven were from the same teams. But, only two of them – Cincinnati and Arizona – won more games in 2015 than they did in 2014.
The follow-up to a double-digit win season wasn’t always kind. Baltimore went from 10-6 to 5-11. Indianapolis went from 11-5 to 8-8. Dallas went from 12-4 to 4-12. Philadelphia went from 10-6 to 7-9. Detroit went from 11-5 to 7-9.
Even teams that were dominant the previous year saw their standing take a bit of a hit. Pittsburgh went from 11-5 to 10-6, dropping from a division champion to a wild card. Green Bay’s dominance of the NFC North ended, falling from 12-4 to 10-6 and going from division champion to a wild card. The same was true for Seattle, which went from two-time NFC representative in the Super Bowl to a wild card team that escaped Minnesota only to get crushed by Carolina and fell from 12-4 to 10-6 and three games out of first place in the NFC West.
The flip side of the coin is true. The Vikings went from 7-9 and third place in the NFC North to 11-5 and the division champ. The Jets went from 4-12 to 10-6. Washington went from 4-12 and last place in the NFC East to 9-7 and division champion. Carolina became just the second team in league history to win a division title with a losing record (7-8-1) in 2014 to having the best record in the league last year at 15-1.
The difference between winning and losing in the NFL can be extremely fickle and unforgiving. Just ask Leslie Frazier.
In 2013, if games were 59 minutes long, the Vikings would have had a record of 10-6 and would have made the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, games remain 60 minutes long. The Vikings lost four games and tied another in which they had a lead with less than one minute remaining in the fourth quarter. Instead of going 10-6, the Vikings finished 5-10-1 and Frazier was fired the day after the final game – ushering in the Mike Zimmer era of Vikings football.
It’s a very fine line that can be the difference in winning and losing. There isn’t a Vikings offensive or defensive player that took the field against Seattle in the bone-chilling final game of outdoor Minnesota Vikings football at TCF Bank Stadium who can be convinced that Seattle was the better team on the field that day. The defense did enough to win. The offense did enough to win. But they lost.
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As difficult as it is for a team to string together the rate of success to make the playoffs on a consistent basis, unless you’re the New England Patriots or teams that Peyton Manning quarterbacked, those opportunities don’t come every year. They take a lot of players working together and being effective at it on a consistent basis to get to the top of the game.
The Vikings are a team that is being respected by the rest of the league because it is viewed as a group capable of winning on both sides of the ball. But, as history has taught us, just because you got it done last year is no guarantee that history will repeat itself or that the Vikings’ upward momentum will continue in 2016.
The best thing the Vikings have going for them is that they were sent home last year in a game they all believe they should have won and remain in disbelief that they didn’t. They’re not complacent with past success because the true measure of success is based upon what you do after you get to the playoffs, not so much the journey that got you there. But it’s the climb that the players remember and will be looking to build on so they aren’t one of the 11 double-digit teams from 2015 that will invariably fall from that perch in 2016.