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GAME REPORTS

 
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Crash Landing
by Dennis Ranahan

Guiding a team into the playoffs is the first objective for any coach when opening a National Football League season. The process requires winning games, but to end the season with a Super Bowl triumph requires even more. Champions know how to bring a squad in for a landing with the same skill a pilot lands a jumbo jet.

If a pilot thought the only objective was to get the aircraft on the runway, we as passengers would experience a lot more rough landings. In fact, an experienced pilot knows how to manage a landing, when to pull up and when to set it down in order to create a soft arrival. It can be the same way for a coach in the NFL.

Bringing a team home, with the ultimate objective of winning a Super Bowl, dictates a coach has the ability of knowing when to throttle both up and down. Make a mistake here and a whole season of work can crash.

Take the 1987 San Francisco 49ers for example. This was one of the best teams in the glory years of Bill Walsh’s tenure as head coach in San Francisco. Yet, on the final day of the regular season that year, Walsh and his 49ers did something that to this day I don’t understand. They had the top seed in the NFC locked up, nothing to play for in their final game, and yet, they went out and beat the Los Angeles Rams in their final game, 48-0.

Why?

History will show that teams that win by more than 40 points one week often have trouble in their next game, particularly against the point spread. Also, how you land a team in the playoffs can have a huge affect on how a squad performs once they arrive in the postseason.

Nothing is worse than winning a game you don’t need for motivation going forward.

Walsh called the loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the 49ers only playoff game in 1987 the most disappointing of his career. It was a game San Francisco was favored by double-digits, at home, and at a time they had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks on their roster, Joe Montana and Steve Young.

That day, they used them both. And when Walsh pulled Montana in the second half to try to spark his team with Young, the icy relationship between the two quarterbacks was exasperated. Yep, the 49ers didn’t need to beat the Rams in their final game, but did pick up a 14th regular season win in convincing fashion and then got upset in their postseason opener.

While the 49ers meaningless win over the Rams and upset loss to the Vikings is the most dramatic example of what can happen to a team that wins a game to close out the regular season they don’t need, it is a pattern that has consistently proven true.

Just as great teams losing their final game when they don’t matter is the precursor of good things to come. It is like trimming the sails entering the postseason. A final day of the regular season loss always serves to get the attention of the athletes motivationally, even if the game was played with a sprinkling of backups. Take the Philadelphia Eagles last year, they didn’t need to beat the Dallas Cowboys on the final day of the regular season, didn’t, and then when on to win the Super Bowl.

This year, the team that played their hand like a master was the New Orleans Saints. Only two squads came into the final week of the regular season with nothing more important to play for than to get ready for the postseason, they were the Saints and Cowboys.

Sean Payton, who has won a Super Bowl while coaching the Saints, played backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and New Orleans walked through their season finale and lost, at home, to the Carolina Panthers, 33-14.

New Orleans is now primed and ready to take on the postseason full throttle.

The Cowboys, under the direction of Jason Garrett, sat runningback Ezekiel Elliott in their last game but played quarterback Dak Prescott for the entire contest. If Prescott would have been injured against the New York Giants, Garrett might have been fired before Dallas left New York. Instead, the Cowboys pulled out a win against the Giants, 36-35, and now head into the postseason in no better position than the 49ers were against the Vikings 21 years ago.

Garrett is in his ninth season as the Cowboys head coach, and has led Dallas to the playoffs for the third time. He won his first postseason game over the Detroit Lions, but lost against the point spread, and was knocked out of the postseason the following week by the Green Bay Packers. Two years ago, Dallas had the top seed in the NFC, but lost their home postseason game to Green Bay.

This time, the Cowboys are in the playoffs, but based on how their coach led them into this game, it’s going to be a crash landing.

Qoxhi Picks: Seattle Seahawks (+2½) over Dallas Cowboys