In a sport dominated by stats and lists, there was one achievement in 2016 that was just as true in 2015 – if you have an offensive line that stays together, success will follow.
Next week, a lot of the talk about Super Bowl LI will be about the high-octane Atlanta Falcons offense and how it has run like a well-oiled machine for the last three months after an uneven start to the season.
There will also be conversation about how the Falcons’ arrival at the Super Bowl began last year when they started 5-0 and then collapsed, finishing 8-8 after suffering a rash of injuries.
The 2016 Falcons and the 2015 Minnesota Vikings couldn’t be more disparate teams. The Falcons have an embarrassment of riches on offense – they can run 50 times or throw 50 times, often by their choosing. The Vikings have assembled their defensive troops. But, they do have less obvious similarities.
Both franchises opted to put a defensive guy at the top of the coaching depth chart – Mike Zimmer with the Vikings and Dan Quinn in Atlanta.
The Vikings hired Zimmer because their defense was dismal. The Falcons hired the Mighty Quinn away from Seattle because they had an offense will all the pieces in place to make some noise and needed to improve the other side of the ball to make themselves a Super Bowl team.
Whether you believe the Falcons defense has caught up to its offense or not, Atlanta is in the Super Bowl for the first time since they took out the 16-1 Vikings in January 1999.
But, the one thing that the Vikings and Falcons share as an unarguable explanation for their respective rises in the discussion of Super Bowl contenders – one achieved, another unfulfilled – came down to five guys.
The offensive line.
In 2015, the Vikings were the lone team among the (currently) 32 teams that started the same five guys in 16 games.
Those five guys were never the five guys expected to be the five guys. Preseason injuries to Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan took care of that.
But, the five guys the Vikings put out week after week 16 times did their part to cut out the division title stranglehold the Packers had on the NFC North.
In 2016, there was only one team that had the same five offensive linemen – the Atlanta Falcons.
To succeed in the NFL, you need a lot of things to go right. From the looks of things in the NFC, having continuity on the offensive line seems to be critical to success.
Despite its unintended grouping, the 2015 Vikings, based around Adrian Peterson, could have made a deep playoff run.
Atlanta is still playing.
They share some key similarities to the Vikings, even though there are plenty of dissimilarities.
The one common ground? The same five (relatively) healthy offensive linemen played every game.
Expect O-line to be the narrative of the early 2017 offseason. The Vikings know more than most how much continuity of an offensive line ties into success – and wins and losses are the only stat that truly matters in the NFL.