Nothing quite sounded right, and everything sounded too simple. But there’s an element of truth to the simplicity. When you scrape away all the injuries and other problems the 2016 Vikings have encountered, you still find a team that — despite going 1-6 in its past seven games — bears a decent amount of similarity to the one that had gone 16-5 in its previous 21 regular-season games.
The last four of those six recent losses came in games that were there for the taking. A quick recap: the home loss to Detroit in which all the Vikings needed was one very likely defensive stop in the closing seconds; the loss at Washington where the Vikings had the ball with a chance to score the winning TD; the loss at Detroit where EITHER a defensive stop or a late offensive drive would have won the game; and the loss to Dallas, where one play changed momentum and another play kept them from forcing overtime.
Compare that to so many of the games they were winning during that 16-5 stretch spanning 2015 and the first five games of 2016. A ton of them were classic three-to-five play games where the outcome hung in the balance, the Vikings made the majority of the crucial toss-up plays and came out on top.
Under head coach Mike Zimmer, they’ve been a team that operates on a thin margin. Sure, they’ve had a few comfortable wins. But generally speaking they wear teams down, keep games close and rely on an ability to make a game-changing play — often on defense or special teams, but sometimes on offense — to rack up wins.
With all of their injuries and problems on the offensive line this season, they’ve become a team of even thinner margins. If one thing goes wrong on any down of any given offensive drive — something big like a penalty or sack but also something as small as a dropped pass to make it 2nd-and-10 instead of 2nd-and-5 — it’s likely to bog down and result in either a field goal or a punt.
That puts even more pressure on the defense, which has been largely OK during this losing skid but also has failed to lock down games (the two against Detroit in particular) that it has converted into victories in the past.
It adds up to a team that largely performs the same for the vast majority of each game but FEELS entirely different than it did even a month ago when crunch time arrives.
There was no point in the game Thursday against Dallas that I was confident the Vikings were going to win, even though they held a lead in the fourth quarter. That stood in sharp contrast to the feeling I got when the team was winning close games. If I feel it just watching on my couch, one has to imagine players feel it.
The caveat is that the 5-0 start this season carried with it some notion that this was a team that was no longer living on such thin margins. What we can probably see in retrospect is that the Vikings’ overwhelming turnover margin and propensity to score on special teams and defense earlier this year obscured reality. They were still largely a team operating on thin margins. Their big plays just happened to be exceptionally big.
The good news for the Vikings is that they’re right there in most of these games and could reverse course and start winning again if those handful of plays start to go their way.
The double dose of bad news, though, is that by virtue of losing so many close ones, their margin isn’t just thin from game to game but also in the playoff race. And in revealing that this team is still one that operates on very thin margins regardless of whether it’s winning or losing, we certainly know the Vikings aren’t one of the NFL’s elite teams — something we reasonably concluded they were when they were 5-0.