Of course, the converse of that headline also is true – it's never as good as it looks.
The 2012-13 Vikings are a case study of this theorem.
As I'm sure you all remember, last year the Vikings went 10-6 and reached the NFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed. It was an out-of-nowhere season after they went 3-13 in Leslie Frazier's first year as head coach.
But lost in the giddiness of the surprise postseason berth and Adrian Peterson's super-human comeback season was the fact that the 2012 Vikings massively overachieved. In 16 games, they scored just 31 more points than they allowed. They gave up 215 more yards than they gained. Based on statistics, they probably should have been – at best – a .500 team.
So how did they become a playoff team? Well, football is a game of emotions and momentum – within each game, and from game-to-game. If you win a few that maybe you shouldn’t, suddenly you’ve got confidence, whether you earned those wins or they were based on blind luck. If you win a few games early, you start to believe you’re good, and that confidence can carry over to the next time you’re up against it with the game on the line.
It’s also the nature of the hyper-intense schedule inherent in football. In baseball, if you blow one play that costs you a game, that’s 1/162 of the season. In basketball or hockey, it’s about 1/80 of the season. But if you blow one play that costs you a game in the NFL, that’s 1/16 of the season. Everything is magnified – for better or for worse.
Let’s travel back to 2012. The Vikings started the season by winning a game they probably had no business winning. Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert hit Cecil Shorts with a 39-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left and the Purple trailed 23-20. But Christian Ponder hit Devin Aromashodu (remember him?) with a 26-yard bullet and flipped a 6-yard pass to Kyle Rudolph to set up Blair Walsh for a 55-yard game-tying field goal as time ran out. The Vikings won in overtime, and suddenly they had confidence they could win tight games – which they did with regularity the rest of the year. In fact, they went 5-1 in games decided by one score last year.
Push ahead 12 months. The Vikings opened the season in Detroit, entered the fourth quarter down by a field goal and lost by 10. They followed that with a loss at Chicago, giving up the winning touchdown on the Bears’ final drive. A week later they repeated that pattern against Cleveland, and before you knew it, they were 0-3 and the season was circling the bowl. Even with Thursday night’s win over Washington, the Vikings are 2-3 in games decided by one score. When the game hits crunch time, this year they haven’t gotten (or made their own) breaks.
That’s not to say there aren’t personnel problems on the 2013 Vikings. Or coaching problems. There certainly are. But the personnel and coaches aren’t much different from last year. I’d argue that if they’d found a way to win two or three of those first three games, it would have snowballed into a positive trend as the players gained confidence. Maybe that midseason lull doesn’t happen. Maybe they don’t feel the need to grab Josh Freeman and throw the whole quarterback situation into flux. Maybe Frazier still has a modicum of job security.
Yeah, that’s a lot of maybes. And yeah, it’s always annoying when a fan of a 2-7 team says, “We’re just four our five plays away from maybe being 7-2!”
But last year, the Vikings were four or five plays away from going 5-11. Instead, they finished 10-6. The ball bounced their way last year, masking their flaws. This year, their flaws have been exposed.
But next year? With a new coach, a new quarterback (sorry, even Thursday night’s mostly stellar performance doesn’t have me buying stock in Ponder) and a fresh slate, don’t be shocked if this roller coaster ride resumes in a positive direction.
Patrick Donnelly is a contributor to the Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.