Posted: Tuesday January 16, 2007 12:05PM; Updated: Tuesday January 16, 2007 10:19PM
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).
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.