Trial by fire
Jeffri Chadiha, SI.com
Indianapolis Colts strong safety Bob Sanders is the inspiration behind today's column. When asked before the playoffs how Indy's defense could overcome its regular season problems, he said the unit would be better because injuries had ruined the team's continuity in the past. Now that the Colts were healthier, their execution would be sharper.
It sounded like the predictable response of an athlete in obvious denial about the state of his team -- you know, the old "Wait-Until-You-See-Us-This-Time-Around" attitude -- but Sanders was making a valid point that has larger meaning for every team in this postseason. The key to the Colts' playoff success, you see, isn't much different than that of the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears or the New England Patriots. It comes down to chemistry and confidence.
When you look at what's happened in the postseason this decade, it's impossible to overlook that most of the Super Bowl champions had the same formula working for them. Most weren't heavy favorites. Rather, they were the teams that hit their stride at just the right time, usually after overcoming some prolonged stretch of adversity that hardened them.
Like this year's NFC and AFC finalists, those Super Bowl winners had a level of mental toughness that couldn't be measured on paper.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens developed that tenacity because they went five games with an offense that couldn't score a touchdown. The '01 Patriots had it because they started 0-2, lost their starting quarterback to injury and then discovered that his backup, Tom Brady, had far more magic in him than anyone every imagined. The '04 Patriots? People forget they won their third Super Bowl in four seasons with a makeshift secondary. The '05 Steelers? They were on the brink of missing the playoffs until an eight-game winning streak landed them the Lombardi Trophy.
My point is that all these teams had to deal with some sort of crisis during the season that forced them to mature into a championship team. That's what we often overlook these days. We live in a time where we make instant judgments on teams without considering their growth potential. But the league is all about transition now. The days when you could look at the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers or Pittsburgh Steelers and know they were as good as they were five years ago have long since passed. Every team starts anew in this NFL when a season begins and that means they're constantly evolving as the year progresses.
If they've been doubted, dogged or denounced at any point of the season, they're doubly motivated to make amends in the playoffs. Look at the Colts, a team that finished the regular season with the league's 32nd-ranked run defense. Their run defense has been sterling in the playoffs. The Bears lost Pro Bowl defenders Tommie Harris and Mike Brown to injury, while their quarterback, Rex Grossman, displayed an incredible capacity for both brilliant and befuddling play during the regular season. They've overcome that and are a victory away from playing in the Super Bowl. I can also promise you that few people thought New England had enough offense to advance this far, and that few even expected the Saints to make the playoffs. But the holdovers from last year's Saints team can recall every negative memory that resulted from their nomadic, post-Katrina season in 2005, and that's been a motivator in their turnaround.
Conversely, what did San Diego and Baltimore, two squads who rolled through the AFC, have to endure? This isn't to say they lacked the talent or that their seasons were any less impressive. It's just that regular-season dominance means very little in the NFL anymore. With the Chargers falling to New England last week, we've now seen the team with the league's best record fall short in the playoffs for the third straight season (the '04 Steelers and '05 Colts were the others).
[Jay's note - only the Steelers even won a single playoff game after amassing the best playoff record and the Steelers needed the Jets to miss a FG at the end of regulation to get into overtime.]
As any of these teams can tell you now, success in the playoffs goes beyond impressive stats and gaudy won-loss records. The postseason comes down to momentum, heart and a belief that no matter what has happened during the regular season, you've learned enough about yourselves to apply those lessons in January. They didn't reach this point because they were the better teams. They got here because they gained the most from the struggles that today's teams have to endure in order to be called champions.