Momentum paves road to top

As stretch run begins, remember it's hottest team, not best one, that wins Super Bowl

December 16, 2006|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Reporter

Six years ago, the Ravens didn't know better.

They had a defense for the ages, a coach who drew up Super Bowl practices at midseason, and - after going without an offensive touchdown in October - no real reason to think they'd get there.

But they did. In a rush and a roar.

The Ravens won the final seven games of the regular season, then four more as a wild-card playoff team to become Super Bowl champions in a year when the Tennessee Titans had the best record (13-3) in the NFL.

"We didn't know we couldn't do it," coach Brian Billick said last week. "No one thought that much of us, I don't think. And the schedule laid out well for us."

The Ravens made just enough plays on offense to back up a defense that broke the league record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season. Once they started winning, there was no stopping them.

"We kind of got on a run," left tackle Jonathan Ogden said, "and got to a point where we didn't think we could lose."

It wasn't the first time - or the last - that a team written off earlier in the year came back to win it all. The Pittsburgh Steelers performed their version of that trick last season, when they rode momentum to a climactic conclusion.

Saddled with a 7-5 record one week into December, the Steelers ran the table, winning their last eight games, to celebrate with the Lombardi Trophy in February.

Those examples serve as a mantra for teams on the playoff bubble, teams such as the Denver Broncos and New York Giants, both of whom are 7-6 and trying to get into the postseason.

When Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was asked in a recent news conference which AFC team was the team to beat, he reached for a common denominator.

"I think who stays healthy and who's hot at the time the playoffs start [is the team to beat]," Shanahan said. "As we saw last year, anything can happen."

The hottest team, if not the healthiest team, is the one that usually barrels through the playoffs to gain a Super Bowl berth. It's not always the best team, although by winning three Super Bowls in four years, the New England Patriots make a case for the latter.

History shows that winning in December means playing in January. That has been the trademark of the Patriots since they took the league by surprise in 2001 and upset the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots have won 19 of 23 regular-season games in December or early January since the 2001 season.

Quarterback Tom Brady says it comes down to "toughness, preparation, playing physical, playing smart."

"I think those four qualities, that have been the makeup of this team, are the reason why we have been successful late in the year," Brady said in a Patriots news conference.

"You sit at a place where you can go one of two ways - you can get better or you can get worse. This team has always chosen to get better ... and put the work in to improve."

The factors that contribute to a successful stretch run are many. Injuries are a critical indicator. So are turnovers. When the Ravens won their Super Bowl, their defensive frenzy generated 49 turnovers in the regular season and 12 more in the postseason. That's more than three a game over a 20-game season.

"Even though we weren't dynamic offensively, we didn't turn the ball over," Billick said. "And we ran the ball well. I don't know that we're running the ball as well as we did then, but we're not turning it over [this season]. We're clearly throwing it better."

A confident team in December is important, too.

While Billick acknowledges the team's late-season run in 2000 was vital to its confidence level going into the playoffs, he questions the concept of stretch runs.

"To talk about that intimates that now you're really going to work hard, or now you're really going to focus, or now it's really important," he said. "Well, it was pretty important in September and October and November, too. I understand the mentality, but I'm not sure that's something the team really focuses on."

When Pittsburgh won its last eight a year ago, it was more a matter of survival, Billick said.

"All they did was fight their butts off every week, whoever they played," he said. "They weren't making any stretch run, they were trying to stay alive."

For a team in playoff trouble, such as the Giants, there is a heightened sense of urgency to stay in contention. New York linebacker Antonio Pierce voiced that sentiment in another news conference as the team prepared for an NFC East showdown with the 7-6 Philadelphia Eagles.

"[There's] more pressure because it's getting closer and closer to crunch time," Pierce said. "It's one of those things where every week you go in knowing that there can't be any wasted reps, no wasted meetings, no wasted plays. Everybody keeps talking about a playoff atmosphere; that's what it's got to be like."

As Billick indicated, the schedule also plays a role.

The Chicago Bears have a two-game lead on the New Orleans Saints for home-field advantage in the NFC. Given the strength of their remaining schedule, it would take a major collapse for the Bears to fail to get the top seed. Their last three opponents have a combined record of 10-29, the easiest finishing schedule of any playoff hopeful.

In the AFC, the Ravens have the softest finishing schedule (16-23) of any team currently in first place in its division. The Ravens would have to climb over two teams (the San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts) to get the AFC's top seed, but getting a first-round bye appears to be within reach.

Billick takes nothing for granted, however, even with 10 wins.

"We're still in the business of determining, one, can we get into the playoffs, and two, what our seeding is," he said. "I think it's going to come down to the last game, what the seeding is going to be."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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