The NFL playoffs have a strange way of turning strengths into weaknesses and weaknesses into strengths.
The playoffs sure have a way of punishing perfection, or near perfection. I have relayed several times on air this week a conversation I had with a friend on the night before the Vikings played the Falcons in the 1998 playoffs. On that occasion, one of the sports news shows was touting Gary Anderson, who had been perfect to that point in the season, as automatic. To that, my friend opined that the 15-1 Vikings were sure to see their season end on a missed field goal. That it happened the next day, at the hands of the Falcons was still quite a surprise.
Last weekend saw Tom Brady enter the postseason on the NFL’s all-time streak of passes without an interception. An early interception set the stage for the Jets’ improbable win. Likewise, Ray Rice entered the post-season without a fumble all year. While his fumble on Saturday was hardly the pivotal moment in the Ravens’ season ending loss, it certainly contributed.
You could even throw in Brady’s ’07 Patriots who went unbeaten into the Super Bowl, while striking a fear in opponents that kept them reluctant to blitz. The Giants ended that run unceremoniously with constant pressure on Brady. We could also mention that last season’s Colts were perfect in the times that they were trying to win. They too failed to finish the deal.
If we apply that logic to the remaining match-ups, we might guess that the Jets would beat the Steelers by running right at them. While that doesn’t seem to be the textbook game plan for beating Pittsburgh, the Jets already rode that strategy to a degree of success in the regular season. Perhaps instead they’ll win by causing Ben Roethlisberger to melt down in the two-minute offense, as that seems to be the Steelers other inherent strength. If the Steelers hope to win, they might make it happen by attacking Darrelle Revis often, or by backing out of their stacked fronts and spreading the field defensively, by making the Jets run and move down the field methodically.
In the other match-up, the Packers might win by kicking to Devin Hester or by attacking Julius Peppers at the line of scrimmage. And the Bears’ best bet might be to stuff the box and stop the Packers improbably successful ground game, and put the game on Aaron Rodgers’ seemingly able shoulders.
If history has shown us anything, it may be that regular season trends are subject to change in a big way once the post-season rolls around. On the other side of the coin, the ’06 Colts found their only opportunity in the Manning era to hoist the Lombardi trophy only when their historically bad (even for Colts standards) run defense turned stout for their playoff run. Or what about the ’08 Cardinals who couldn’t seem to get out of their own way on the road in the regular season? They became road warriors in the playoffs.
From that perspective it may make a little more sense. That teams would try to beat the Colts by running at them was predictable, so the fact that they were ready for it should have been equally predictable. Once teams found themselves at a loss to do it however, they had no answer for Indy. Maybe the Jets strategy against the Patriots on Sunday only worked because it was so out of the realm of the typical Jets / Pats game plan. Maybe Brady struggled with the pressure in ’07 only because the copycat nature of the NFL had teams backing away from the pressure against New England from at least week 6 on. Once charged with dealing with it again, as late as in the Super Bowl, the Patriots simply weren’t ready. And perhaps teams in ’08 simply failed to take the Cardinals seriously, assuming travel alone would have taken a heavier toll on them than in did.
To that end, perhaps we should count ourselves lucky as fans that the Ravens with perhaps the NFL’s best ever defense in 2000, were still able to ride that defense through the post-season. To that I’ll offer this, I always found it curious that as dominant as that defense was, they never scored on their turnovers. In week 17, against the Jets, Chris McAllister had an interception return for a TD, and Jermaine Lewis returned 2 punts for TDs too. Those were (by my count) the only defensive or special teams TDs that the team scored all season. Of course once the playoffs began the defense made up for lost time, piling up TDs on their way to the title. Maybe that was their saving grace against a shift in trend.
This much I’d bet. These have been some of the most curious / interesting playoff games in recent memory. If you could hit the reset button and start back over from the beginning 10 times, you’d almost certainly get at least 6 different winners. As the conference title games get closer and closer, someone else’s luck (2 more in fact) is bound to change for the worst.