NFL winners, losers not separated by much

With an 11-2 record, the Vikings are clear favorites to beat the Panthers, who are 5-8. But several Vikings testified to the razor-thin difference between winning and losing seasons in the NFL. They speak from experience.

One of the most futile exercises among those who follow the NFL is to make preseason predictions as to where teams will finish. Many national football analysts picked Chicago to win the NFC North. They've already been eliminated from division title hopes and are hanging by a thread in the wild card chase with three weeks to go. The defending champion Steelers have fallen on hard times and are below .500. The Tennessee Titans finished 13-3 a year ago and lost their first six games of the 2009 season.

As the Vikings prepare for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night, they come in against a team that had a first-round playoff bye coming off a 13-3 season last year, but are now struggling at 5-8. Fingers are being pointed in Charlotte as to why a team that was so strong a year ago can be struggling so badly this year to even string back-to-back wins together. They have most of the same pieces to the puzzle they had last year, yet have found ways to lose games this season that they didn't a year ago.

Several Vikings veterans have been part of the up-and-down roller coaster of the NFL and said that the difference between a good team, a mediocre team and a bad team isn't that much. Kicker Ryan Longwell didn't have too many down seasons in Green Bay, but said that the little things can come into play that make a team feel snake-bit one year and blessed the next. For the Panthers, injuries have been no small part of their downward spiral. They are without both of their bookend offensive tackles – Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, both of whom have been placed on injured reserve. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has been injured and ineffective, and the season started by losing defensive leader and run-stuffing nose tackle Maake Kemoeautu in the preseason. But Longwell said it isn't only injuries that can cause a Jeckyl-Hyde performance from even the best of teams.

"Injuries are a huge part of it," Longwell said. "But you would be shocked to see how many times it's one play here or one play there. Momentum starts going the opposite way and it just starts to snowball. I've been on teams like that before and it's crazy how little difference there is between when the breaks are going your way and when they're not."

For teams like the Panthers and Titans last year, their success started early and they rode it like a wave – much in the same way the Vikings have piled up wins in 2009. Even players who have been around the league for a long time and experienced both the highs and lows of team success can't put their finger on exactly what the primary difference is. Ben Leber has seen both sides of that fence with both the Chargers and the Vikings and said it can be confounding at times.

"It's crazy," Leber said. "You can have the same players and the same members of the organization and there's just a different feel and a different chemistry from one season to the next. It's the unknown that plays such a huge factor in the successes of some of these teams. It's just that ‘It Factor' – the swagger they have, the chemistry they play with. That can go up and down as a season goes on."

The consistency from year to year is something that is hard to quantify. Indianapolis, for example, has won 12 or more games for six straight years. Yet other teams will have double-digit wins one season and double-digit losses the next. Madieu Williams went through those peaks and valleys with the Bengals and said you can't hang your hat on the success you may have experienced one season because, although many of the key component parts of the team remain, there is a lot of turnover on a 53-man roster and one mistake by a special teams player can be the difference between winning and losing.

"Each year stands on its own merit," Williams said. "You can't look at what a team did last year and automatically expect it will continue the following year. For the most part, it's not going to be the same team – the personalities, how the guys gel as a group, injuries. They all have a hand in the type of success you have from year to year. What you hope for is that your core guys are consistent and playing at a high level."

For players who have gone through the turmoil of a sub-par season that began with high expectations, there is little to do other than try to pull the team out of its nosedive by any means necessary. Often times, when bad times strike, they have a cumulative effect on the team. But staying positive and focused is all that can help teams that have fallen on hard times.

"I've been part of those teams," Leber said. "As much as you can, you try to stay positive. You try to take every negative and spin it positive. Sometimes it just works out that way – guys get injured, the ball doesn't bounce your way – and at times it seems like you just can't catch a break. The tough thing is to stay positive and tally it up at the end of the year. You just try to remain positive from week to week and work through it."

Don't expect the Vikings to get overconfident because the Panthers are down this season. Too many of them know the difference between being a playoff team and an also-ran is razor thin and underestimating what a team that is down on its luck can accomplish can be a mistake.

"It's very minute," guard Anthony Herrera said of the difference between winning and losing. "You have a handful of plays – two to five – that you can go back and count and say, ‘These were the difference-makers.' That's the difference between an 11-2 team and a 5-8 team. They still have a great team. If you don't respect them, you're going to go down there and they're going to beat you. You have to fully respect them and go down there and play football."

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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