Commentary

Cranking up the playoff heat

In the unpredictable postseason, one win is all it takes to fire up momentum

Originally Published: December 29, 2011
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Kurt Warner delivered the speech with classic conviction, intent on driving home a message that would resonate with his less experienced teammates. The Arizona Cardinals were preparing for their first postseason appearance in a decade, and Warner knew how precious such opportunities were. As he peered around the meeting room and emphasized his points with passionate gestures, he needed his fellow players to see him as a valuable example. Warner had played in two Super Bowls in his first three years as an NFL starter. He hadn't come close to returning since.

One of the major points Warner conveyed on that day three years ago was that you never can gauge the unpredictable nature of the playoffs. Top seeds can stumble. Long shots can seize the moment. Most important, the participants who spend too much time believing their own hype are prime targets for early departures. As Warner knew well, the scariest teams in the postseason are the ones that get hot.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson, Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Packers were 8-6 last season before ripping off six straight wins on their way to the title.
Current Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Steve Breaston was in the room that day, and he still remembers how much the quarterback's message meant. "He told us that we couldn't take anything for granted," Breaston said. The receiver also vividly recalls how special that postseason was for Arizona. The Cardinals went on a stunning playoff run that brought them to within minutes of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. In doing so, Arizona became one of the more recent examples of how hard momentum is to predict in the NFL -- and how far it can take teams that find it at just the right time.

This year, less heralded teams such as Detroit, Houston and Atlanta will try to become the latest Super Bowl success story at a time when underdogs reign supreme. Since the 2005 season -- when the Steelers went from No. 6 seed to Super Bowl champion -- four teams have used late-season hot streaks to become postseason darlings. The Green Bay Packers were the sixth seed when they beat Pittsburgh in last season's Super Bowl. The New York Giants had the same status when they upset the undefeated New England Patriots during the 2007 season. And, if it weren't for a last-minute touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII, the Cardinals would've been champions, as well.

Such postseason runs have become so frequent that it's worth wondering whether momentum can actually be manufactured or is simply as random as a gentle breeze. As ESPN contributor and former NFL player Ross Tucker said, "Momentum just means confidence. If you win two straight games in the NFL, you start feeling really good about yourself. If you win three straight, you start thinking that you're unbeatable. I've been on teams where we've had streaks like that and we thought nobody could stop us. And we weren't that good."

"The key is to win one game," said former Kansas City coach Todd Haley, who was Arizona's offensive coordinator in 2008. "As we showed in Arizona, if you win one game, you've got a chance to do anything. The other factor is to have the guys understand that the regular season means nothing. We've all seen it. History has proven that it doesn't matter if you've won nine games as we did in Arizona or 16 as New England did [in 2007]. … It only matters what you do now."

Something special needed

Larry FitzgeraldSam Sharpe/US PresswireThe 2008 Cardinals' passing attack -- led by Larry Fitzgerald, left, and Kurt Warner -- gave them a huge edge in the playoffs.

A fresh start certainly makes a huge difference for any team trying to find its playoff mojo. A few other factors can help, as well. Such as a red-hot quarterback. Or a veteran, like Warner, who understands the significance of the moment. You also can't underestimate what adversity can do for a team's mental edge or the understated coaching moves that seem borne out of desperation but ultimately appear deft. Above all else, teams that have serious talent have a chance to spark a late-season run.

Warner believed that the teams most likely to have a postseason surge generally do something as well as or better than most other teams in the NFL. For the 2008 Cardinals, their passing attack -- led by Warner and Pro Bowl receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin -- gave them an edge.

"The combination we had with Kurt, Larry and Boldin was huge because we always knew we had that asset in our back pocket," Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "To get deep into the playoffs, you definitely need something that most teams don't have. Because we had a great quarterback and receivers, those guys helped raise the play of the people around them."

The Cardinals went into that postseason boasting the second-best passing offense in the league and promptly made people wonder why they weren't ranked first. Fitzgerald set league postseason records for receptions (30), receiving yards (546) and touchdowns (seven) despite playing with a broken thumb and torn cartilage in his left hand. Warner completed 68.1 percent of his passes while throwing for 11 touchdowns with only three interceptions. They basically exemplified what Graves meant when he said, "You need your money players making plays when you need them most in the playoffs."

Warner's play that postseason had to be especially gratifying for Haley because he had fought to keep Warner as the team's starter a year earlier. Many had believed that Warner was merely keeping the quarterback job warm until former first-round pick Matt Leinart grew up. As it turned out, Warner reinforced what most people believe about the NFL. Said one AFC general manager, "If you don't have a quarterback who's playing well in the postseason, you're not going to do s---."

Rodgers proved as much last season, when he led the Packers to three straight road victories and a Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh even though Green Bay had lost 15 players to injured reserve. Roethlisberger completed only 42.9 percent of his passes in Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XL win over the Seattle Seahawks, but he connected on 68 percent of his attempts in the three playoff road wins preceding that game. Then there's Eli Manning of the Giants. He went from being inconsistent heading into the 2007 season -- so much so that general manager Jerry Reese openly criticized him -- to leading New York to three road victories and arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history that postseason.

Someone to guide them

Michael StrahanElsa/Getty ImagesMichael Strahan made sure that younger teammates such as Justin Tuck were focused during the Giants' run to a Super Bowl win.
It's difficult to know why Manning found his groove at that exact moment, but what isn't in question is the help he had around him. Defensive end Michael Strahan had spent 15 years in the NFL without a championship, and he made sure his teammates were focused as they blitzed through the NFC in those playoffs. Before the Giants left for Arizona to meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Strahan delivered a message similar to the one Warner gave his Cardinals teammates. The key advice Strahan offered to his teammates back then was not to let their concentration wane once they were so close to the prize.

Strahan had been so anxious about playing in his first Super Bowl -- when the Giants lost to Baltimore during the 2000 season -- that the entire week had blown by him. By the time he had settled down, the Ravens were coasting to a rout. Strahan also was wondering whether he'd ever have another opportunity to hoist a Lombardi trophy. He ultimately waited seven years for his next shot.

Sometimes veterans can set the stage for momentum to begin long before it's necessary. Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, then in his 12th season, was openly telling his teammates that they shouldn't take their potential for granted when they were a young team coming of age in the 2009 season. Other times, it requires a veteran to take matters into his own hands. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis did that during the 2005 season, when his team was 7-5 with four games to go in a season when its playoff hopes looked iffy.

It wasn't just that Bettis battered his way for 101 yards and two touchdowns against the Chicago Bears in a Week 13 win. It was the statement that effort sent to his teammates and the rest of the league. This was a man drifting toward retirement (Bettis gained only 368 yards that season), but he wasn't going down easy. Subsequently, that Steelers team didn't lose again that season, reeling off eight straight victories.

"We felt like we couldn't lose," Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. "That [win] really built up our confidence because we felt the sense of urgency after that. When you look back on it, you like to think that you're practicing well and playing well. But there was definitely a change in attitude around us. Our practices became more upbeat and more up-tempo."

Adversity brings them together

Thomas JonesDon McPeak/US PresswireThomas Jones and the 2009 Jets went from 7-7 to riding a four-game win streak to the AFC title game.
Other players also believe that going through some kind of adversity helps a team's resolve when it enters the playoffs as an underdog. Whether it's all the injuries Green Bay faced last season, all the losing seasons Arizona endured before its Super Bowl run or simply disappointing playoff defeats in previous seasons (as the Steelers and Giants had experienced), mental toughness is forged in those difficult times and leads to postseason success down the road.

"Having your back against the wall at some point really does help," said Chiefs running back Thomas Jones, who played for the New York Jets when they went from being a 7-7 team to riding a four-game win streak to the AFC Championship Game in 2009. "If you get that first week off before the playoffs, you can relax, and it's hard to get that mental edge back."

Added Giants left tackle David Diehl: "The thing that you need to see is a team that sticks together when things aren't going right. You have to have that consistent belief in the group because that resilience is huge."

GM Graves also said that effective coaching can't be overlooked when it comes to momentum. When the Cardinals got hot in 2008, a major factor in their success was the re-emergence of running back Edgerrin James. After getting 24 carries in the seven games he played leading up to Arizona's season finale against Seattle that season, James averaged 16.5 attempts in the Cardinals' four wins before the Super Bowl. It would've been easy for Arizona to just ride Warner's arm as far as it could go, but Haley and coach Ken Whisenhunt knew their offense was better with a little balance.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin actually had more success with his team in 2007 because of things he did away from the field. Reputed to have an abrasive, no-nonsense personality that had worn thin on his players, Coughlin entered that season with a refreshing change in attitude. He connected with his players by starting an 11-man leadership council, printing T-shirts that read, "Talk is Cheap/Play the Game" and even holding team-only casino nights in offseason minicamps. Consequently, the Giants weren't tuning out their coach when they struggled in the second half of that season. Instead, they were following his lead.

Said Graves: "You certainly have to be stable and productive at the quarterback position to get some momentum, but the teams that go on those runs are also well-coached. When you look at a New England or an Indianapolis before this year, they may have four or five players that everybody else doesn't have. But they go deep in the playoffs because they get the most out of the other guys. That's what teams that get hot do well."

Can another team follow in the footsteps of recent underdogs? The smart money this postseason is on the Packers' repeating, the Patriots' riding Tom Brady to their fourth title or some familiar faces (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Orleans) sustaining their own dominance. But don't be surprised if another unlikely suspect decides that this postseason belongs to it.

"If you get into the NFL playoffs, you deserve to be there," Breaston said. "Once you realize that, you just need to get your confidence rolling."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.