Playoffs: Don’t Clinch Early
By Walter Rhein
What a difference a month makes!
No matter how poorly the Packers play, I almost always watch them until the bitter end in hope of a miracle comeback. However, it seems like once a season, I lose patience and shut off a game. In 2013, the Packers got blown out in the first half against Dallas. I pulled the plug on the TV and jumped into my car, only to listen on the radio as Eddie Lacy and Matt Flynn somehow willed their way to a 37-36 win.
This 2016 season is shaping up to be almost as big a miracle.
This year, Jared Cook’s late fumble against the Titans provoked my once-a-year abandonment of the team. That seemed like a low point, until the following week’s 42-24 blowout loss to the Redskins effectively started the Packers playoff season early. They couldn’t afford to lose again; Mike McCarthy said it, Aaron Rodgers said it, and so far they haven’t. Now, with as bad as the Packers looked in November, they have fought back into a position to control their own destiny. There’s even been MVP chatter for Rodgers. But there’s a lot of football left to play.
We all remember 2010, another season where the Packers had their back to the wall early. The Packers were at 8-5 when Rodgers got hurt against the Lions on their way to a 7-3 loss. Suddenly their chances at the playoffs were in doubt. They headed to New England, again with Matt Flynn as their starter, and though they began the game with a successful onside kick, they couldn’t quite get the victory. Rodgers came back with the team at 8-6 and they didn’t lose again until December 18th of the following year, stopping only to hoist the Lombardi Trophy along the way.
In 2010, they hit the playoffs hot, forged by the desperation of the final two weeks, and that momentum carried them to the championship.
In contrast, consider 2011. At 15-1, the team started pumping the brakes.
“Nobody’s going to beat the Packers.”
“They better rest their starters.”
That whole year, the Lombardi trophy seemed like a given. None of the analysts talked about anyone else. “This team will go undefeated,” Jimmy Johnson said. Aaron Rodgers threw 45 touchdown passes against 6 interceptions. Heck, Matt Flynn even stepped up and threw 6 touchdowns all against the Lions during the last game of the year.
Number 1 seed!
Yeah! We got this.
Then, BOOM, one and done against the Giants in the playoffs. We were robbed of a Rodgers-versus-Brady Super Bowl once again.
Sadly, this is a reoccurring story in the NFL. Number 1 seeds clinch early, rest up for the playoffs, then wash out in the first or second round. It’s easy to second guess, but with injuries such a major factor in the NFL, you can’t blame a coach for pulling a star player. When was the last time you remember somebody getting hurt in an insignificant game and blowing the season of a hot team? What about a team resting too much and losing its edge?
The statistics are revealing.
The last three Super Bowl winners have been #1 seeds. However, during the stretch from 2000 to 2012, the #1 seed only won two Super Bowls. New England won in the 2003-2004 season, and New Orleans won in 2009-2010. Amazingly, during that stretch the #6 and #1 seed was just as likely to win as Pittsburgh showed in 2005 and the Packers showed in 2010. The #2 seed had 4 wins in that span: New England in 2001, Tampa Bay in 2002, New England in 2004 and Baltimore in 2012.
No NFL coach is going to diminish the importance of the chance at a first-round playoff bye; after all, it’s impossible to lose a game you don’t have to play. However, sometimes you see teams with a chance at a bye risk their starters only to see them give a lackluster performance. Playing for a bye doesn’t seem to inspire athletes as much as fighting for a playoff berth. Any time pro athletes go at anything less than 100%, they are at risk of injury. But really, how much of a concern should injury be? Can you prevent it by over-thinking it, or do you just set yourself up for failure? I’m all for caution as long as it doesn’t disrupt the momentum of the team. But it’s a fine line to walk, especially when players feel they’re “given permission” by the coach to lose.
As Herm Edwards said, “You play to win the game!”
Simple lessons are easier to learn.
“Just win, baby.”
What does it do to your team’s psychology if you start getting cute “resting players” for the playoffs, and putting forth less than your best effort to finish off the regular season? It has worked on occasion, and then there are those instances of one and done.
I prefer the accelerator to the brake.
Fortunately, the Packers are not in a position to consider anything like that this year. Their objective is streamlined: to win. Nobody’s going to second guess their choices now. They’ve been going for it on fourth down, keeping Rodgers in even though he’s hobbled, and calling confident, aggressive games.
Yes! There’s no better playoff practice than that.
And with every plunge into the forge, this squad comes out hotter.
Keep it simple. Keep the momentum, and win.
A team with its back against the wall is dangerous.
The modern NFL is all about getting hot at the right time. The age of truly dominant teams that simply outclass their opposition is a thing of the past. Free agency and talent dilution has seen to that. Everybody starts the playoffs 0-0, and a squad that has already been playing elimination games, and is used to having its back against the wall is dangerous no matter where they are seeded. If the Packers manage to slip in, nobody’s going to remember they were 4-6 at one point. Desperation forges champions, and if we’ve learned anything in the last few weeks, it’s that this is a team that is going to go down swinging.
Byes are nice, but there’s a certain old school glory to be won by doing it the hard way. The pressure is eased considerably when the analysts don’t give you a chance. That chip on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulder begins to throb when he goes into a contest as an underdog. I say clinch late, go into the playoffs battle-tested, and take the league by surprise.
It worked in 2010.