The final three weeks of the NFL regular season offer a unique dichotomy among those teams that are no longer in playoff contention. There are the up-and-comers who are trying to finish strong and gain momentum to sustain into next season. Think San Francisco and Houston. Then there are those teams that appear to be simply playing out the string of a disappointing season and eager to just get this season over with so they can head back to their respective offseason homes. Think Jacksonville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.
There is very little middle ground among the have-nots as they finish up their seasons, and it appears fairly easy to identify which side of the ledger a given team falls on. How these teams finish will go a long way to determining who will be charged with getting the team into playoff contention next season. There are various reasons why some teams seem intent on finishing strong while others just seem intent on finishing.
The NFL season is a grueling grind that takes a toll on one's body both mentally and physically. The chance of making the playoffs and having the opportunity to potentially win a championship is the overriding motivation among teams. But how do you stay motivated once that opportunity has slipped away, your body hurts in a number of places, and you are tired of essentially working seven days a week since late July? I have been in that situation on a number of occasions and it is not easy.
One of the common ingredients of teams that are achieving late season success, like the Niners and Texans, is youth. Both rosters are littered with young players that are still eager to prove their worth. Offensive linemen like Joe Staley in San Francisco and Eric Winston in Houston are on the precipice of being considered standouts at their positions, and a strong finish is vital to their cause. Younger players are also usually hungrier and healthier this time of year. Some older players can get comfortable with their status and allow their preparation and intensity during the week of practice to drop off. Obviously it depends on the character and job security of the older players that are on the roster. Though every player in the NFL is essentially playing for their job on a week-to-week basis due to the nature of NFL contracts, that reality is typically only motivation for players who feel they are consistently on the bubble and often not enough.
Even more important may be those teams playing for a cause -- more often than not, their head coach's job. Every 49er I have spoken with has unequivocally stated both on and off the record that they want Mike Singletary back as head coach next season and they are playing like it, as they have beaten the Bills and Jets in successive weeks on their way back towards respectability at 5-8. The Texans feel the same way about Gary Kubiak and have effectively bounced back from an 0-4 start to get to 6-7 and still have a chance to better last season's 8-8 finish.
Expectations can play a big part in how a team plays this time of year. Teams that came into the season with high expectations, like Jacksonville and Cleveland, can play especially horrid as the realization sets in that the preseason hype was all for naught. Teams from whom nobody expected much, like the Kansas City Chiefs, find a way to play inspired football every week in spite of their record.
No matter what situation a non-playoff contender is in from a motivation, expectation, or age standpoint, the beginning of any game they play from here on out is critical. Teams that get out to a lead in the opening stanza are much more likely to remain competitive for the rest of the game, whereas teams that start poorly start to get that "here we go again mindset" on the sideline and mentally throw in the towel.
I am a huge fan of Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and the way he plays the game of football, but his protestations regarding the low block Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus delivered on Sunday are the very definition of the pot calling the kettle black.
For the record, I have no problem with the block by Cherilus. None. It may be cheap, borderline or however else you want to define it, but it is also legal and to me that is all that matters. His job is to finish every play until the whistle blows, and Allen, of all people, should realize that.
Cherilus is a rookie trying to prove himself as a player in this league and one of the ways in which you do that is effort. Cherilus was on his knees as Allen pursued the play from behind. Cherilus, not knowing where the ball was or how the play might finish, cut Allen in a legal fashion and Allen didn't like it. If Allen no longer wanted to be engaged in the action, he shouldn't have been running in pursuit. If he was still attempting to contribute to the play, he should have been protecting himself better.
There already have been and will continue to be several former players that will talk about a brotherhood that exists in the NFL and general guidelines for proper decorum among players, but I never bought into all that. There are enough rules already put in place by the league to protect players, and I never really felt as if anyone should be shown any additional favor within the white lines. Late hits or hits out of bounds are one thing, but legal blocks during the context of a play are fair game as far as I am concerned.
And besides, who is Allen to be talking about cheap shots? He is the player that has already been fined large sums of money for a number of questionable hits already this season. His below the waist lunges at Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub arguably changed the complexion of the Texans season as it knocked Schaub out of the lineup for a number of games. The bottom line is Allen's angry attempted confrontation of Cherilus would have carried a whole lot more weight if Allen hadn't been fined for several more egregious incidents earlier this season.