- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The San Francisco 49ers had just rallied against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday and survived the sort of shootout they weren't supposed to be able to win. Now they were raving about their stunning game-winning play the way jackpot winners in Vegas gush when all three windows of a slot machine magically click, click, click into place.
But the notable difference is that the 49ers' outcome, which put them into Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants, didn't happen by chance.
San Francisco's dramatic 36-32 win had more to do with the art of the game plan than luck. More precisely, the win came on a play installed just four days earlier based on a tiny nuance about the Saints' defense plucked from the sort of elephantine memory bank that every good coach tries to develop. Sharp-eyed San Francisco quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst said he'd remembered from his previous NFL stop with the Carolina Panthers that Saints safety Roman Harper has a tendency to be caught "flatfooted" when defending certain passes on the goal line.
That was enough. The Niners targeted that little foible and that's how their berth in the NFC title game ultimately was won.
The biggest gamble of San Francisco's magical season essentially came down to someone who wears a headset noticing that the opposing team's safety occasionally moves like he has fallen arches.
The art of the game plan depends on teasing out and dialing up such moments. And when it works to perfection thanks to some charmed confluence of coaching and grinding preparation, player execution and guts, "The feeling is absolutely euphoric," says Trent Dilfer, who won Super Bowl XXXV with Baltimore and spent time with the 49ers before becoming an analyst for ESPN. "That's what I call executing at the chalkboard level. It goes just the way you chalked it up. ... And it justifies all the work and investment and intensity you need getting ready for game day. It validates all of it."
When you stack up the characteristics of the best game plans -- deception, disguise, exploitation, taking advantage of someone, exposing them in public -- it can sound downright criminal. Especially when you add a visual like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick prowling the sideline with a gray hoodie pulled way over his head. He looks like someone ready to knock over a gas station more than the mad-scientist brain of a billion-dollar NFL operation.
But a great game plan is like trying to pull off a perfect crime, in a way. And when you look at the four teams still left in the NFL playoffs -- San Francisco and New York in the NFC; the Baltimore Ravens and New England in the AFC -- their mastery of the art of the game plan is one of the shared traits that leap out at you.
Again, consider the Niners' game-winner. A lot had to develop after Chryst drew up that red-zone play during the week, starting with his conviction to urge offensive coordinator Greg Roman to choose it in crunch time. The situation was third-and-4 with just 14 seconds to play and the ball at the Saints' 14, with the Niners trailing by three. Chryst's bosses -- Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh -- had to have the go-for-glory attitude to call it, too.
A more conservative play might've better protected the 49ers' chance to line up the next play for a 30-some-yard field goal attempt to send the game into overtime. This pass meant quarterback Alex Smith had to pull the trigger before tight end Vernon Davis even made his break toward the post in front of Harper and throw the strike of his seven-year NFL life. And Davis had to make sure he was there on time and positioned to seal off Harper from beating him to the ball.
"It was Us against 'No,' Us against 'Can't,'" Davis memorably said afterward, through tears of joy and relief.
It was the best NFL highlight of the weekend. But not the only one. Did you see how Belichick interrupted The Season of Gronk to have his other crazily gifted tight end, Aaron Hernandez, line up in the backfield like a blocking back and startle the Denver Broncos by taking a handoff and cutting upfield for a 42-yard gain? How about that interception by Baltimore safety Ed Reed in the end zone against the Houston Texans' wet-behind-the-ears rookie quarterback T.J. Yates? Reed's awesome sense of premonition involves film work, not just instincts.
Much of the talk going into the Giants game against the 15-1 Green Bay Packers was about the ability of New York's front four to get a pass rush on Aaron Rodgers without help from blitzes. And yet blitzing is exactly what linebacker Michael Boley did to tie for the Giants' lead with two sacks.
All New York coach Tom Coughlin has done is devise game plans for two of his team's last three playoff starts that knocked off 18-0 New England in Super Bowl XLII and the supposedly invincible Packers last Sunday. He beat the Pats at their place this season, too. The man and his staff know how to game-plan. They know how to win the Big Game.
Casual fans might think of offenses having more sophisticated game plans than defenses, but Mark Bowen, a former safety for four NFL teams who now writes about strategy for the National Football Post website and other publications, says some defensive game plans on his teams "were the size of college textbooks." They went light years beyond the usual down-and-distance stuff and included minutia like timing how many seconds elapsed between when New England's Tom Brady lifts his leg while awaiting a snap and when the ball arrives in his hands. "It was 2.2 seconds," Bowen says.
When he played, Dilfer was often described as the ultimate game-manager quarterback. He says one of the things that "gets me up on my soapbox at times" is how people too often "dumb down football with all their talking about the swiftest, the strongest," when in truth, games at the NFL level are most often won with tactics that put players in the best position to succeed.
"If it really came down to just who's bigger, stronger, fastest, tallest, guys would just spend all their time in the weight room -- but they don't," Dilfer says. "Players spend far more time in meetings and the classroom, studying."
You hear all the time about players who are traded or cut having to turn in their playbooks immediately. But did you know this? Bowen, who played for the Rams, Packers, Redskins and Bills, says game plans are so closely guarded that "most of teams I played with would have a big trunk there when we got to the locker room and everyone had to turn in their game plan when they got to stadium. You'd just throw it in there when you walked in. By game time, they'd have the trunk locked up. And if you forgot or lost your game plan, it would cost you $10,000."
Bowen says inside secrets and game plan strategies and tendencies tend to "travel" team to team, anyway.
"When you go into any coach's office, it's filled with binders and film of everything they've ever done," he says. "I mean, I played for four different teams and I stashed notebooks that I kept. I still go back and look at them. 'OK, how did we prepare for Andy Reid in 2002? How about Jon Gruden?' Whomever it may be. It's really hard to out-coach people. Coaches and players move so much now, everybody knows each other's stuff. So it often becomes who can come up with something new every week, some new wrinkle no one has ever seen ... especially in the playoffs."
The Niners and Giants, Patriots and Ravens all have done that during their playoff runs. All of them have variations of the flat-footed safety observation the Niners' staff targeted.
The Giants' Coughlin is so hyper-vigilant about details, for example, that backup quarterback David Carr says the weekly scouting report for the quarterbacks includes the Wonderlic intelligence assessment test scores of the opposing team's defensive players, just so the Giants' QBs know who might run the mental equivalent of a 10-second 40. "I'd never seen that before I got here," Carr says with a laugh.
Such a detail might mean nothing. Or it could mean everything.
That's the thing about art, even when it comes to game-planning.
An observer might not be able to articulate what makes it special. But you damn well know it's art when you see it, all right.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sure, speed, size and talent will play roles in this Sunday's championship games. But so will preparation. Game plans really do matter. Just ask Vernon Davis. Or Aaron Hernandez.