Close doesn't count in NFL, or does it?

There's a tendency to rationalize narrow defeats by suggesting that a play or two might have changed the outcome.

There's also a tendency to avoid applying similar standards to narrow victories.

Best-case scenarios carry greater appeal than realistic ones, of course.

2011 NFL Wins by Margin (<8 pts. is close)

If only the 2011 Arizona Cardinals had won the four games they lost by four or fewer points ... without losing any of the five they won by similar margins ... they would have been 12-4, not 8-8.

Call it the power of positive (wishful) thinking.

The earlier item on the Cardinals' being "in almost every game" last season invited a look through the team's results.

Arizona went 8-8, with every victory by between two and seven points. This seemed unusual. A closer look at final scores, enabled by Pro Football Reference, showed the Cardinals leading the NFL in games won by fewer than eight points, and tying for the lead in percentage of victories won by that margin.

I used the eight-point cutoff because it lined up with the Cardinals' results and approximated a reasonable differential.

We might conclude that Arizona was fortunate to win so many close games. Indeed, Patrick Peterson's four punt returns for touchdowns matched or covered the point differentials for three Arizona victories. Those returns counted, but can a team realistically count on such unusual occurrences?

Yet, if we look at some of the Cardinals' close defeats, we see a couple games in which Arizona squandered sizable leads. The Cardinals led Washington and the New York Giants by at least eight points in fourth quarters before losing. They built a 24-3 lead over Baltimore before losing in overtime.

I'm not drawing firm conclusions from these numbers. They confirm that the Cardinals and their fans were subjected to roller-coaster conditions on the journey from 1-6 to 8-8.

We also have a better appreciation for how close the Cardinals came to joining the NFL's elite -- and its bottom dwellers. By this measure, no team came closer.