The Vikings have become a popular choice nationally to emerge as a "surprise" team this season, if the idea of a surprise even exists in the NFL these days.

Since the league expanded to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, at least four teams have made the playoffs in every season after failing to qualify the previous year.

If that trend continues, one-third of the playoff participants this season will be new. So it's not a long walk out on a limb to suggest the Vikings can improve upon last season's win total (seven) and earn a postseason berth.

But how do they bridge that gap?

Win close games.

Win the games that still are toss-ups in the fourth quarter. Win the winnable games, a bumper sticker slogan for the modern-day NFL.

That's often what separates the good teams from the bad, the playoff teams from those that stay home.

"I've always said the difference between 6-10 and 10-6 is very, very small," said Vikings backup quarterback Shaun Hill, a 14-year veteran.

Sounds cliché, but his theory has some validity. Not every NFL game is decided on a final drive in the final two minutes. It only feels the way.

Last season, 43 percent of all NFL games were decided by one score (eight points or fewer).

Nearly 65 percent of games were within one score at some point in the fourth quarter.

The Vikings were no exception. They found themselves in one-score games in the fourth quarter 11 times last season.

They had nine games decided by eight points or fewer, going 4-5 in those situations.

They came unglued in blowing late leads at Buffalo and Miami. Win those games and their season looks different. But that's precisely the point.

Good teams don't look back and say would've, could've, should've. They don't bemoan the "few plays here or there" that decided the outcome. They capitalize on the thin margin that separates the majority of teams.

Teams that made the playoffs last season combined for a 50-22-2 record in one-score games.

"That's something that the more years you get, the more you understand how important those things are," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "You just realize that when it's crunch time, that's when the game is won."

Smith referenced the 2013 season when the Vikings routinely fell apart in the fourth quarter. They gagged on five late leads, going 0-4-1 in those games, which created trust issues and a damaged relationship between players and defensive coordinator Alan Williams.

That team's inability to win close games ultimately got Leslie Frazier fired.

"There were a few games where if you flip them … those are huge ifs because they didn't happen," Smith said.

The prevalence of tight finishes puts a premium on execution in gut-check moments. Two-minute and four-minute offense never has been more important in football than it is now.

The difference between winning and losing often gets boiled down to a team's ability to manufacture a game-winning drive (or prevent one) or protect a lead with a four-minute clock drain.

To that point, Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner noted that he puts more stock in the final 15 minutes of practice when evaluating players than he does the first 15 minutes.

The best teams know how to finish.

"If you don't have a good two-minute offense and defense," Smith said, "it's tough to win."

The Vikings, like every team, spend considerable practice time on those situations. Two minutes on the clock, ball at the 25, two timeouts, go.

"It's so important in this day and age of throwing the football," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Situations have to be worked and reworked."

As a rookie, Teddy Bridgewater showed some poise in those pressure moments without Adrian Peterson or a top-flight receiving corps. Bridgewater completed 17 of 26 passes with one interception while posting the 14th-best quarterback rating in the final two minutes of games, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Vikings should be better equipped to succeed in those make-or-break situations in Year 2 of Bridgewater and Mike Zimmer's defense.

Zimmer preaches toughness in those moments. Not just physical toughness, but mental, too. A sign hanging inside Winter Park encapsulates his point.

"Tough teams win in the fourth quarter."

Close games are a way of life in the NFL. How the Vikings handle them will determine if they are a playoff team, or not.