Archived Story

Why NFL teams really win or lose games

Published 8:50am Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

On this Christmas Day, let’s reflect on what really matters: Minnesota Vikings football.

This season has had its share of ups and downs, and with one week left the team has achieved a 9-6 record — much better than last year’s lousy mark of 3-13 or the 2010 record of 6-10.

We fans got to love having a winning season.

But here’s the deal: When we watch the games, we tend to frame the game in terms of athletic ability, probably because all the commentators and writers look at sports that way. But there is so much psychology going on.

After all, the same team that came out on fire against the hot San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 was dead flat when it played the struggling Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Week 12. Why? The same team that beat the Houston Texans, the best AFC team, on the road Sunday lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home in Week 8. Why?

Fox Sports analyst Jimmy Johnson, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Dallas Cowboys, often picks his winners based on which teams are hungriest for the victory.

I think that is a smart way to make picks. NFL teams tend to ebb and flow their way through the season. It’s a grind to play 16 teams, and these guys make oodles of dough and live comfortably. The biggest thing never said about NFL players is that they sometimes just want to cash their checks and go home to the lives they enjoy outside of football. It reminds me of the theme song to “King of Queens.”


My eyes are getting weary

My back is getting tight

I’m sitting here in traffic on the Queensboro Bridge tonight

But I don’t care ’cause all I want to do…

is cash my check and drive right home to you

’cause Baby, all my life

I will be driving home to you


Honestly, it’s human nature, even in pro football, to sometimes get tired of the daily grind. Too often, they think the guy next to them will get the job done. But if everyone is feeling that way, then they lose.

That’s probably what happened to Houston. They thought they would beat the Vikings at home because they were supposed to, so the players showed up with their B game. Meanwhile, the Vikings were hungry to remain in playoff contention. They brought their A game.

Teams that show up to play and play hard each week, even if they don’t win, seem to have better cohesion, too. I think of the 1969 Vikings team (NFL champions) that had the motto, “40 for 60,” implying 40 players doing their best for each other for 60 minutes.

Here’s another factor I see in games. The players have a preconceived notion of the other team based on reputation. I rode the pines a lot on a high school powerhouse basketball team, and we knew that our reputation alone could get players on other teams off their game. (I got to play only after we built a comfortable lead.)

I’ve heard it called “pressing” or “forcing.” It’s when you try too hard that you mess up. Anxiety gets to you. I know I play sports from bowling to disc golf to basketball better when I just have fun and be aggressive, but I screw up when I set demands.

Black and blue division teams can relate. The Packers have had a lot of injuries lately, but they (supposedly) are the vaunted Packers. Teams might screw up because they are forcing their A game, rather than just playing it. (Let’s hope the Vikings relax and just play their A game Sunday. In fact, let’s hope the Packers are the ones who are intimidated by having to play the Vikings at the Metrodome.)

It works the other way, too. No matter how much talent the Detroit Lions might assemble, the Vikings, Bears and Packers are not intimidated by them because the Lions have a losing reputation. That helps the opponents of the Lions to relax and just play their game.

Ugly and sloppy games seem to happen when both games are forcing it. Super Bowls often start out with the players seeming jitterish, but one team falls into its groove sooner and that can help it be the winner.

Of course, let’s not forget what a team thinks of itself. Some NFL teams frequently perform poorly because that is the mentality of the franchise. Teams lose because they believe they will lose. It takes a change in beliefs to change that. The New Orleans Saints were perennial losers, before Sean Payton and Drew Brees came to town.

The Vikings have a tradition of winning. They don’t have a Super Bowl title, sure, but (not factoring this season in any of my stats here) they have a winning percentage of 56 percent in the Super Bowl era, making them the fifth-winningest team in that era. The Packers are ninth in the Super Bowl era.

And the Vikings are tied at third for division titles in the Super Bowl era, with 18. Yes, Packers fans, we have more division titles than you do. You have 11. Congrats on winning this season. That makes 12. You need six more to catch up. And the Vikings are tied for second in the NFL for seasons making the playoffs, at 26. The Packers made the playoffs 18 times.

If sustained excellence is your measurement, then the Vikings are the better franchise.

So, yes, Jimmy Johnson is right. Motivation wins games. The Vikings are hot when they are motivated. Beat the Pack.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Sunday.