The NFL playoffs are as compelling a drama as there is in professional sports and it is not hard to understand why. The single-elimination tournament nature of the playoffs is unique to the NFL among the four major professional sports.
Players and coaches alike take their games to another level and the games take on new meaning: win or go home. Here are four reasons why the playoffs are so much different than the regular season.
• The intensity. This amped-up engergy is seen throughout the week of practice and into the game. The focus seems greater. The walk-thrus and practices are crisper. Any joking around that might have occurred toward the end of the regular season has vanished. Players appear to arrive earlier and stay later as they watch more film to prepare for the next opponent. More guys receive extra treatment and sit in the cold tub after practice to make sure their body is as healthy and as fresh as possible.
Increased intensity is also seen in certain ways during the game. Guys might take some borderline shots on other players that they might not take in the regular season. During the regular season there is an unwritten code of ethics regarding certain blocks or techniques that most players follow. In the playoffs, that code no longer exists.
Offensive linemen are much more likely to be seen working downfield finishing blocks until the whistle blows. Though there are players, such as San Diego Chargers guard Kris Dielman, who are known for this throughout the regular season. Many others will develop Dielman-like tendencies during the playoffs when a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line.
Wide receivers like New England's Wes Welker are more likely to finish their efforts downfield by cut blocking a safety or cornerback, a move often frowned upon by skill-position players. Players realize what is at stake and no longer seem interested in unwritten rules. They are playing for keeps.
• The vets lead and the rookies follow. On one hand, you have the guys that are making either their first trip to the playoffs -- or first in a while -- and realize how fortunate they are to be in this situation. Team leaders like Nick Barnett of the Packers are cognizant of the fact that many Pro Bowl players, such as the Eagles' Takeo Spikes and the Bills' Aaron Schobel, can have long successful careers yet never make the playoffs.
On the other hand, you have veterans like the Patriots' Tedy Bruschi and the Colts' Jeff Saturday, who are frequently in the playoffs and are aware there is a very small window in which they can achieve their lifelong glory and cement their legacy. Veterans who have been there before and realize how special it is try to convey that to the younger players.
During my time in the playoffs with the Patriots in 2005, Willie McGinest removed all board games that players typically played during their free time in between meetings or over the lunch break. His message was obvious: It is time to get serious and ratchet it up a notch.
The vets refuse to allow younger players to take this time for granted and expect them to ratchet up their preparation and focus throughout the week while dismissing any thoughts they may have about the length of the season or the dreaded rookie wall. Saturday must get this message across to the many Colts' rookies like Tony Ugoh, Ed Johnson and Anthony Gonzalez, whose performance is critical in Indy's quest to repeat as champions.
• Primetime performers. Certain players have a unique quality to play their best when the stakes are the highest. Joe Montana always seemed to have a knack for making the big play just when the 49ers needed it during their dynastic run in the '80s.
Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri each have the innate ability to block out the distractions and hoopla during the playoffs and concentrate on the task at hand. Players like these come through so often when it matters most that they earn the reputation of being clutch performers.
What makes certain players excel while others falter in these situations is anyone's guess. The playoffs are an opportunity to witness firsthand whether young quarterbacks like Tony Romo and Philip Rivers will perform like studs or duds when the pressure is on.
• It is about the ring, not the money. One of the reasons the playoffs are so intriguing is that the players are truly playing for the chance to call themselves a champion. Oftentimes while players are in contract disputes they will talk about how it is "not about the money." Quite often it is indeed all about the money.
An interesting component of the playoffs is that it truly is not about the money at this point. Though the players do get paid throughout the playoffs, it is often a fraction of what they earn during the regular season.
The financial implications no longer matter at this point. The opportunity to win a Super Bowl trumps any thought of material gain and is one of the reasons why the playoffs are so special.