Learning To Win Close Ones A Must

The Vikings would have been in the playoffs and possibly contending in a seemingly weaker conference if they could have won just one of their three games that were decided by three points or less. It seems to indicate that this team still needs to learn how to win the close ones.

This year's NFL playoffs are closer than ever, with three of eight games going into overtime, and a record low for margin of victory in the divisional round games. While the games are interesting, will any one team prove to be the best, or just the one that gets the breaks on that particular day?

The AFC teams appear to be stronger than the NFC teams. The Colts have an excellent offensive team, and have improved defensively under Tony Dungy. The Patriots have lost only two games, and appear to be the most balanced and well-coached team in the league.

In the NFC, this year's playoffs seem like a crapshoot. The Eagles win with mirrors much of the time, and Carolina consistently wins close games with solid defense, a strong running game and great kicker. Neither team is great, nor clearly better than the teams that have been eliminated. They simply have a knack for winning close games. That in itself will get you far in the current NFL.

Bringing us to the Vikings. While the collapse of the defense this year was the main story, the Vikings could have saved their season if they could have won even one close game. The Vikings were 0-3 in games decided by three points or fewer this year (a 3-0 record in those games would have put them at 12-4 and tied for the best record in the NFC). Their record in games decided by seven points or less in the last two years is 5-10. The Vikings make too many mistakes and give the opposition too many chances to take games away that could easily swing to Minnesota. There has been talk of the Vikes being a young team that has undergone many changes in the last two years, but they have to change the dynamic that allows games to slip away.

One thing that puzzles me is the penalties; two years in a row near the most in the league. The Vikings are a young team, but some of the veteran players are making mistakes. The offensive line is supposedly one of the NFL's best, but the number of false starts and holding penalties this year was horrendous.

Mike Rosenthal was getting a couple of penalties a game at the end of the season, and it's his fifth year in the league. Denard Walker and Ken Irvin commit obvious infractions in the secondary, and both are veteran players. Is another year going to change the way they play?

Daunte Culpepper has to emerge at some point as a polished NFL quarterback. While he has great skills, his ability to manage games and bring the team from behind is in question. He eliminated the glaring mistakes for the most part, the bumbling turnovers this year; however, he had key mistakes in the final minutes of many games the Vikings lost. His next step must be to lead the Vikings to wins in games that they would normally lose.

That's what separates a lot of the all–time greats from the other guys. Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino and many others made an art form of snatching games away from opponents with last-minute drives. Viking fans didn't see even one this year from the Vikings. Quarterbacks that can run brilliant two-minute drills with the game on the line are incredibly valuable in today's NFL. If Culpepper can develop the confidence and leadership to pull this off and the Vikes upgrade their defense and limit the mistakes that cost them so many ballgames this year, they could be playing in the Super Bowl next year.

The talent is there for the most part — this team needs to learn how to win the close games.

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