As a result, the players leave nothing on the field as far as physical effort is concerned. We've all heard the descriptions of playoff action – that the intensity is so much greater than what happens in a regular season game. Does the action really get any faster and more intense during the post season? You'd like to think that it doesn't, but I honestly think with all of the circumstances involved, the game does speed up a notch. The heart beats faster. The blood pumps a bit more furiously.
Having the national TV coverage and knowing that it's one game and you could be out adds extra pressure to the entire scene. It's a different atmosphere and the buzz around playoff games makes it that much more difficult to be poised and consistent the way you were throughout the rest of the year.
In 1995 when I played with Detroit, we had the number one offense in the NFL. Scott Mitchell threw for more than 4,300 yards and two of our receivers went over 1,000 yards. We had a great offense and played our first playoff game against the Eagles in Philadelphia. Ouch! Mitchell threw three interceptions in the first half and he got pulled at halftime. He had one of the worst games of his life and the pressure of being in the playoffs definitely affected him.
As his backup, it was pretty tough to watch our high-powered offense with Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, Brett Perrimen and Johnny Morton completely unravel. To see Mitchell tank in such a big game was surprising and depressing at the same time.
As I survey the NFL and its current playoff system, I can understand how some fans get discouraged with teams backing into the playoffs with mediocre records. Some will argue that a team with an 8-8 record is not worthy of playoff consideration. There is so much parity in the league today and never truer than in the NFC this season. A lot of teams aren't very good on one side of the ball. Some are great offensively, but have weak defenses or vice-versa.
I personally can't complain when an 8-8 team gets into the playoffs. I'm inclined to take that team's side and say that if their record is better than the next team that didn't make it, that's just tough. And once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. Any team can get hot. A quarterback like Daunte Culpepper or Brett Favre can get incredibly hot with their respective group of receivers. Forget about the regular season records because they really don't matter. Whatever it took to get your team into the playoffs, that's all that counts.
Some will argue that this only cheapens the regular season, but when you're a player, you and your team can't choose who you play. It's not your fault if you play a bunch of teams with inferior records. Perhaps they're not as strong or as well-balanced as they were in the past, but that's just the way teams are nowadays. In this era of free agency, it's really hard to build continuity on both offense and defense. I think this season was a great case in point. You had Philadelphia and Atlanta atop the NFC followed by everyone else.
One thing that really does matter in the playoffs is having playoff experience. There is just no substitute for having been there before and tasting the fiery competition and the sense of urgency that a one-game elimination brings. Teams with experienced quarterbacks and other guys that have been there before have a huge advantage over the players and teams that get to the playoffs for the first time. It's an eye-opening experience for the younger guys, especially the rookies. If you've been there and have done it before, you know what it takes and your team is looking to you for leadership. Even a guy like Ben Rothlesberger, as good as he is, is treading into new territory at this time of year. It will be interesting to see how he fares and how far he can lead his team.
Bottom line – it's do or die. The teams that are able to minimize their mistakes are going to have a huge advantage. That means avoiding the unfortunate turnovers, taking care of the ball and not beating yourselves. It means not giving up too many easy plays to your opponent. It means putting together the long sustained drives that can render an opponent's high-powered offense impotent on the sidelines. With all of these teams so evenly balanced – except for that very small group of teams in each conference – those that are able to avoid the killer mistakes will probably make the most noise in the playoffs. That's as true in the NFL today as it has been in the long, proud history of the game. And that's why watching games this time of year is so much fun!
Editor's Note: Don "Majik" Majkowski played for the Packers for six seasons (1987-92). He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1989 when he led the NFL in passing yards. In addition to his duties with Packer Report, Majik has been refining his skills as a football analyst. He is on the air every Monday morning on WSAU-AM 550 in Wausau, and is a frequent guest host on "Pack Attack" on WAOW-TV 9 (Wausau). He has been featured in a broad cross-section of national media recently, including The New York Times, "Cold Pizza" (ESPN 2), NFL Network, Sporting News Radio with James Brown, Chicago Tribune, ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Net.