MANKATO - In every season but two since 1978, the NFL has had at least one team reach the playoffs a year after losing 10 or more games.
That's a 31-for-33 stretch from 1979 through 2011. And, actually, it's more like 31-for-32 since teams played only nine games during the 1982 strike season.
"Really?" asked Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield. "Wow."
Asked to guess how long it has been since there wasn't a playoff team with a double-digit loss total the year before, Winfield thought for a few seconds before saying, "I'd have to guess, ah, three years?"
Not exactly. Try 16 seasons. Yes, 1995 was that long ago.
"1995?" said Vikings rookie first-round draft pick Matt Kalil. "I was 6 years old and probably being baby-sat by someone."
Over the past 15 seasons, 45 teams have reached the playoffs after losing 10 or more times the previous season.
"How about teams that lost 13 times?" asked Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, whose team just happened to lose 13 times a year ago.
Good question. The Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5 and division champs in 2008. The Colts went from 3-13 to 13-3 and division champs in 1999. And the Saints went from 3-13 to 10-6 and division champs in 2000 and 2006.
Since 1995, teams with double- digit loss totals have reached nine conference championship games and three Super Bowls just a year later. The Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV a year after going 4-12. The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI a year after going 5-11.
What does any of this mean? Well, it means the most dissected, scrutinized, overanalyzed and overhyped league in all of sports is likely to produce one, two or possibly three surprise teams that few, if any, among the thousands of expert analysts will have seen coming. And that's encouraging news for last year's teams that went 2-14 (Rams and Colts), 3-13 (Vikings), 4-12 (Buccaneers and Browns), 5-11 (Redskins and Jaguars) and 6-10 (Panthers, Bills and Dolphins).
"I think it means you just take the same approach year in and year out; go about it as if you're going to have a successful season that year," said Rick Spielman, Vikings general manager. "Everyone in that group you're talking about wonders if they can be that team that surprises everybody."
The Vikings play the Bills in each team's second preseason game on Friday night at Mall of America Field. We assume neither team will amount to much this season since they were a combined 9-23 while finishing last in their divisions a year ago. But we also soon forget what happened only months ago.
Five of last year's 12 playoff participants -- Bengals, Lions, Texans, Broncos and 49ers -- lost 10 or more games in 2010. The Bengals and Broncos went from worst to first in their divisions.
"Guessing and predicting is good for the fans and for the people, but I don't really care," Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson said. "You're talking to a kid who went from being a [projected] first- or second-round draft pick to being undrafted. So I really don't think there's a whole lot of good analyzing going on."
Speaking of worst-to-first teams, there has been at least one of them in every season since the NFL realigned into eight divisions in 2002. The NFC South had one every season from 2003 to 2007. Heck, the Bucs went from worst to first in 2005, first to worst in 2006 and worst to first in 2007.
Things like this have been happening for more than 30 years. In 1980, the Bengals and 49ers both went 6-10. In 1981, they played each other in Super Bowl XVI.
Several Vikings players were asked this week to pick this year's surprise team among those that lost 10 or more games last season. They weren't allowed to pick the Vikings since that obviously would have been their choice.
The Panthers were the most popular pick.
"Why?" Greenway said when asked why he picked the Panthers. "Cam Newton. That's why."
Newton, last year's No. 1 overall pick, had the best statistical rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, a four-year veteran who led Tampa Bay to a 10-6 season in 2010, also was mentioned by those Vikings who picked Tampa Bay as the surprise team to watch.
Other Vikings seemed to be picking a name out of a hat.
"I'll go with Cleveland as the surprise team," receiver Jerome Simpson said. "Why? One of my buddies, Frostee Rucker, is there now. Why not?"
Hey, at this time of year, it might be as good a guess as any.
Mark Craig • firstname.lastname@example.org