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Lunch Break, 8/19: Next Step = Winning Close Games

Parity reigns supreme in the NFL. The "On any given Sunday…" adage that is cliché but true is one of many factors that has the NFL atop the American sports landscape. So in a climate where the margin between winning and losing and "not quite good enough" and "good enough" is razor thin, what's the key to falling on the right side?

It's winning close games, writes the Star Tribune's Chip Scoggins.

In an interesting piece published Wednesday, Scoggins takes a look at the parity that exists in the NFL. He cites the fact that since 1990 when the League expanded to a 12-team playoff field, a minimum of four teams have made the postseason every year after failing to qualify the previous year. To be one of those four teams who didn't qualify for the playoffs last season but does this season, Scoggins says the Vikings must win close games.

Writes Scoggins:

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.

What leads Scoggins to identifying this as a key factor? The sheer volume of close games, for one. Scoggins points out that 43% of NFL games last season were decided by one score and that nearly 65% of games were within one score at some point in the 4th quarter. The Vikings were 4-5 in games decided by one possession. Turn one or two of those around, and the Vikings may now be a team trying to make the postseason for consecutive years in 2015.

The rise of Teddy Bridgewater and the emphasis head coach Mike Zimmer places on preparing his team to execute in critical situations are two reasons to expect the Vikings to perform better in close games this season. Concludes Scoggins:

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.

Barr Back on Saturday?

Anthony Barr hasn't played in a game for the Viking since Week 12 of last year's regular season. But Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press writes that may change as soon as this Saturday.

Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer expects Barr to play in the preseason game at TCF Bank Stadium against Oakland. Barr hasn't played since Nov. 30 because of knee issues, missing the final four games of 2014 and the first two this preseason.

"He's feeling good," Zimmer said Tuesday. "We should get him reps this week. You want to tweet that one. We'll get him some plays this week."

Tomasson went on to explain that both Zimmer and Barr are confident the second-year LB will be ready to go for Week 1 of the regular season, a Monday Night Football contest against the San Francisco 49ers on the road. Barr's return is good news for a defense that's on the rise. In 12 games last season, Barr accumulated 99 tackles, 4.0 sacks, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

DT Tom Johnson Impressing Zimmer

It's not easy to impress the stoic-natured Zimmer. But Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune writes that's exactly what DT Tom Johnson is doing.

In two preseason games this summer, Johnson, who was rewarded with a three-year, $7 million deal this offseason, has recorded one sack while hitting a quarterback two other times and recording seven total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Tom is doing well," Zimmer said. "He's got some slither inside in the pass rush. He's working real hard at being a better run defender, and I think he's really come to like how we do things, as far as defensively and how we can help use his ability."

Johnson had a career-high 6.5 sacks for the Vikings last season, playing mostly in a reserve role behind starters Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph. If healthy, that tandem will start again in 2015 and Johnson will remain in his reserve role, giving the Vikings great depth at the position. Being a reserve again this season is a role Johnson is comfortable with, though, and he feels he can once again amass a career-high sack total because he has a year of experience in Zimmer's defense.

"Definitely. That's the goal for the year," Johnson told Vensel. "You can't be stagnant. I'm shooting for a high number this year. And with the team behind me — they're comfortable with me and confident in me — I'll have more opportunities to make plays."

Quick Hitters

Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com writes that LB Brandon Watts is playing with more physicality in his second season.

The Vikings made some roster moves on Tuesday and Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press has some of the details.

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