Playing the "what if" game doesn't last long in an NFL locker room.
Those that make their living inside those walls are hardwired to be singularly focused on the task at hand, which is typically the looming game on a long, grueling schedule. Looking back and wondering what could have been is a task that serves little purpose in the preparation for the next test.
But the Minnesota Vikings, who were officially eliminated from the postseason picture in dramatic fashion in Week 14, might have a legitimate excuse to gaze into the past and ponder on the previous opportunities they squandered this season.
The Vikings are currently 3-9-1. A team is only as good as its record states. And few will deny that this year's club is a deeply flawed football team, one fraught with problems at quarterback, every level of defense and throughout the coaching staff. Losing nine games in 13 tries can't be blamed on anything other than failures that permeate throughout the organization.
Yet these Vikings are also just a handful of plays removed from the possibility of being 8-5 and (gasp!) in the lead of the topsy-turvy NFC North.
Of Minnesota's nine losses, four have come in the waning minutes (or even seconds) of games led by the Vikings. Another, a 26-26 tie with the Green Bay Packers, saw the Vikings lose a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter.
|Opportunities Lost for the Minnesota Vikings in 2013|
|Opponent||MIN's 4th Q Lead||Finish*|
|Week 2||Chicago Bears||30-24||30-31|
|Week 3||Cleveland Browns||27-24||27-31|
|Week 9||Dallas Cowboys||23-20||23-27|
|Week 12||Green Bay Packers||23-7||26-26|
|Week 14||Baltimore Ravens||26-22||22-29|
|*Minnesota leads NFL in blown 4th quarter leads|
If even a few of those games end differently, the division race that currently has the inconsistent Detroit Lions, defenseless Chicago Bears and quarterback-hurting Packers all lining up for a photo finish could also include the Vikings.
In the NFL, the margin for error is simply that small. A play here and a play there can change the outlook of an entire season.
And maybe the law of averages is merely evening out for the Vikings.
A season ago, when Minnesota finished a surprising 10-6 and made the postseason as an NFC Wild Card, the Vikings won five games by a one-score margin. The successes in close games helped fuel the playoff push, as Minnesota won two of its last four games by seven or fewer points.
The luck has obviously dried out in 2013. And it's done so in heartbreaking fashion.
In Week 2, the Bears beat the Vikings on a Jay Cutler touchdown pass with 10 seconds left. Chicago won, 31-30.
A week later, the Cleveland Browns found their first win of the season when Brian Hoyer hooked up with Jordan Cameron for a score with 51 seconds remaining. Cleveland held on to upset the Vikings, 31-27.
It would take until Week 9 for the Vikings to have their hearts broken again. This time, Tony Romo marched the Dallas Cowboys 90 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Just 35 seconds later, the Vikings lost, 27-23.
In Week 12, the Vikings somehow let Matt Flynn—a quarterback released by both the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills this season—score 16 points in the fourth quarter to send a game dominated by Minnesota into overtime. In the extra session, the Vikings couldn't take advantage of an opportunity to win the game on their first possession and eventually had to settle for the tie with Green Bay.
Sunday's back-and-forth bout with the Baltimore Ravens pretty much summed up Minnesota's season.
Maybe never before has the NFL witnessed a crazier final two minutes.
The Vikings took three different leads in the fourth quarter—including two in the final two minutes—but still found a way to lose. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco connected with Marlon Brown in the back of a snowy Baltimore end zone with four seconds left to complete the crazy finish.
It certainly looked like the Vikings would upset the Ravens, both when Toby Gerhart found the end zone with 1:27 left and when Cordarrelle Patterson weaved his way for a 79-yard score with just 45 seconds remaining. It wasn't to be.
Overall, the fourth quarter Sunday featured 42 total points, including 36 in the final 2:05, 398 combined yards and six lead changes. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the five touchdowns scored over the final 125 seconds were delivered faster than any other in the last 50 years. And no previous game in NFL history had ever featured five go-ahead touchdowns in the five 2:30.
But while the finish was rare, frantic and entertaining, it still ended with another tick in the Minnesota loss column.
"These losses, you don't practice this hard to come up short," coach Leslie Frazier said, via ESPN. "It's tough for our guys, it's tough for our staff, it's very disappointing."
The Vikings are now mathematically eliminated from the NFC playoffs, both in terms of the division and wild-card races.
That reality must sting the organization to its core, considering that the NFC North has been one disappointment after another and the tantalizing proximity of Minnesota to having four or five more wins.
But in the NFL, there's no reward for coming close. It's either win or lose, and at least five times this season, Minnesota hasn't done enough at the end of a game to close out a victory. Sunday's failure was the worst yet.
In three weeks' time, when this disappointing but fleeting season is finally at its end, maybe those inside the Vikings locker room can really take a honest look back at how a season that could have been much more ended in such incredulity.