As the Vikings stacked up enough wins to earn a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seed in the NFC this season (and the bye that comes with it), while the Eagles struggled after the injury to standout QB Carson Wentz, it seemed that two groups of Vikings fans emerged.
One group of fans is confident the Vikings are the team in the NFC most likely and best positioned to reach the Super Bowl.
Another group is watching with their hands over their eyes, worried that for as well as things have gone so far, a season-ending loss playoff loss before the Super Bowl is right around the corner.
Given the franchise’s postseason history, there might be more people in the latter group than the former. But there are certainly people in both groups.
And here’s the thing: The problem is that both groups are right, and you don’t have to believe in curses — or the breaking of curses — to come to that conclusion.
You just have to understand math as well as the unfortunate way a lot of our brains work.
Let’s say you’re part of the confident group that thinks the Vikings are the team to beat in the NFC. I think you’re right, by the way — I like the Vikings’ chances of making it to the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium more than I like the chances of any other team in the NFC.
In the case of the Vikings, though, plenty of members of the confident group erroneously translate “most likely” into being “a better chance than not.” And once you’ve gone there, your mind can start playing all sorts of tricks.
Various authors have tried to explain the problem of probability, but it boils down to a few things.
One, if we think the probability of something is high enough (like 90 percent) or low enough (like 10 percent) we have a habit of eliminating all the doubt and treating it like a 100 percent (or zero percent) chance. Malcolm Gladwell describes this in great detail in his book, “David and Goliath.”
Two, even if the chances are closer to even, confirmation bias can come into play. Nate Silver wrote about that in regards to the 2016 election. In the final analysis, his site FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary Clinton a 70 percent chance of winning and Donald Trump a 30 percent chance. While that made Trump an underdog, to be sure, 30 percent is hardly negligible. Still, a lot of us treated it more like a near-impossibility than a real chance.
Silver concluded that media members and liberal voters “cherry-picked their way through the data to support their belief, ignoring evidence — such as Clinton’s poor standing in the Midwest — that didn’t fit the narrative.”
I don’t think confident Vikings fans are necessarily guilty of confirmation bias, nor are they treating a trip the Super Bowl as a near-certainty. Most Vikings fans will at least acknowledge the team’s potential weaknesses and see how the team could get beat.
The problem instead is this: If the Vikings do have the best shot of reaching the Super Bowl from the NFC, it is by a rather narrow margin. And that narrow margin is over five other teams, not one.
Let’s say you think the Vikings have a 65 percent chance of winning their first playoff game at home and a 55 percent chance of winning the NFC title game (given that it could be at Philly or against Team X at U.S. Bank Stadium).
That means they have about a 36 percent chance of winning both games and going to the Super Bowl. (FiveThirtyEight gives the Vikings a 33 percent chance of reaching the Super Bowl, by the way, while Football Outsiders says 30). I think FiveThirtyEight overvalues the Wentz-less Eagles, while FBO overvalues the Rams, but that could just be my confirmation bias at work).
Let’s then give the Eagles a 30 percent chance (given that even with backup Nick Foles struggling lately they only have to win two games, just like the Vikings, and both would be at home), maybe the Rams and Saints each a 12 percent chance (given their relative strength during the regular season and the fact they get to host in the first round) and the Falcons and Panthers each a 5 percent chance.
We can quibble about how the other five teams should be divvied up, but in no scenario would a rational person give the Vikings better than a 50 percent chance of reaching the NFC title game at the outset of the playoffs as compared to the rest of the field combined. Yet that’s what our minds like to believe when we think of the Vikings as the team to beat.
And that’s how a person who thinks the Vikings are the team to beat and a person who’s convinced the Vikings are probably going to lose are both right.
If the Vikings do make it to the Super Bowl and even win the whole thing, they won’t necessarily have beaten the curse — just the odds.
If they lose before the Super Bowl, it won’t be because of a curse — rather, it will be a matter of probability.