Lombardi: My guide to winning NFL playoff games

January 10, 2023 11:03 PM
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What would you consider more important: Having momentum entering Wild-Card Weekend from winning your last game? Or playing poorly and looking out of sync? It’s not a trick question, and don’t fall for the easy answer, because the correct answer is —  neither. Wild-Card Weekend is all about the current matchups, not who has been playing well or who can build off their success.

Dallas looking bad last Sunday was last Sunday and in our rearview mirror. Momentum is a word that's only meaningful the day of the game, it never carries over from one game to the next. All that talk about being a hot team can disappear in the first series of the next game. Don’t believe me? Ask the 2019 Baltimore Ravens or the 2020 New Orleans Saints. We all know one bad play can alter a game, change momentum, so why would we trust anything that has occurred in the past week? We shouldn’t and neither will the coaches. For all of us handicappers, the past is the past, and we need to focus on the matchups and disregard Week 18 outcomes or performances. It’s a new season, and teams that advance this time of the year have certain traits and execute well in specific areas.

In boxing, there is an old saying that styles make fights. And in the NFL playoffs, style is everything. To advance to the next round, games must be played a certain way depending on the opponent. The teams that understand how to adapt their style and have an adaptable talent base will prevail. In this round, all the games are rematches from the 2022 regular season. Familiarity with the opponent allows further wisdom of how to adapt the style of play. The Seahawks know the 49ers well, and each time they played this season, once in Week 2 and then in Week 15, they have been unable to adapt their style. Seattle is fully aware of the challenges that await, and if the Seahawks don’t radically change, the third time won’t be a charm. The past matchups only favor the teams that make the correct adjustments — not who won or could have won. The coaching advantage will be obvious for all to see once the final game is played. But we need to handicap the coordinators and the head coach before assuming the second or third time will be a different result.

Beyond style, there are certain characteristics winning teams possess in January. Here is my guide to winning playoff games:

1. The best players on the team must play the best. Talent rules. It’s not about plays now, its about players. There are no new plays or concepts. Winning teams understand how to feature their best players, and those players play their best. Don’t underestimate talent, or overestimate it.

2. Teams that have balance on both sides of the ball can advance. It takes balanced teams to win — not dominating teams in one area. If a team cannot stop the run, or run the ball, their survival rate decreases. At some point during playoff games, teams must run and stop the run to either end the game or mount a comeback. Balanced teams can gain control of the game, but unbalanced never can. Don’t fall in love with explosive offenses and ignore balance.

3. Teams that win the fourth quarter win the game. Last year, the 49ers scored 10 of their 13 points against the Packers in the fourth and won. The Bengals scored three in the fourth and held the Titans to none for the win. The Bucs scored 14 in the fourth to get back into their game against the Rams only to lose in the last second. Winning these games means winning the fourth quarter.

4. Special teams will become more important — in all areas. Missed extra points will haunt teams, especially if they chase the point the entire game. In addition, field position can determine success. We all know the shortest path is the best path — and playing on shorter fields can lead to more points. Don’t turn down points in playoff games — they matter, as there is no next week.

5. Red-zone rules. Points are at such a premium during these games that one red-zone mistake can be costly. As good as Bills quarterback Josh Allen has played all season, if he continues his red-zone mistakes, they will eventually cost Buffalo a chance at a Super Bowl win. Conversely the defenses performing well in the red zone are going to be in the game regardless of the offensive production.

6. Third-and-short (2 yards or less) is the most critical down in the game — through the entire game. For all the play callers, this situation requires perfect planning and execution. No one wants to take a chance on fourth down in your own territory (Kevin Stefanski and his Browns are not involved this year, probably because of all his attempts at fourth-and-short in his territory) so keeping the ball, gaining more downs often comes down to the simplest play. Short-yardage offense and defense matters.

7. Play the least amount of defense. Winning third-and-short allows the team to play less defense. Normally, time of possession isn’t an important statistic, but it does cut down on possessions. For example, last year in the Bills-Chiefs overtime playoff game, the Bills had the ball for only 27:37 counting overtime, and the Chiefs dominated for 36:38. The Bills only had nine total possessions in the game, scoring five touchdowns and punting four times. Had the Bills gained 12 or 13 possessions, the score might have been different. The Bucs and Rams each had 15, some due to turnovers, and their game didn’t go into overtime. Limiting the possessions matters — it will matter greatly for the Dolphins this weekend if Tua cannot go and Teddy Bridgewater or Skylar Thompson needs to start. The Fins cannot give the Bills more than nine possessions, so milking the clock from the start will be important. Possessions are like at-bats in baseball, the more you get, the better chance for a home run.

8. Mental toughness determines the outcome. Most of the games this weekend will go back and forth — and the teams that can go from one play to the next will remain confident and strong. The ups and downs of the season prepare teams for the hardness of these games.

I am excited to watch all the rematches and will focus my handicapping on these areas. In a winner-advance situation, the most dangerous team is the one that plays unconventionally and understands the opponent.

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