Former Indiana and Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight once said, "The key is not the will to win. Everyone has that. It's the will to prepare to win that is important."
To be well prepared for victory a team must have a teacher that can utilize his skills as a communicator to clearly get his points of emphasis across to the team each week. One of the reasons Knight kept his practices closed to outsiders was because he felt the basketball court was his classroom, which meant no visitors, no interruptions.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh used different approaches to get his point across, from acting as a bell hop greeting the players for their first Super Bowl appearance to laying on the floor of the locker room before sending his team off to play in their second Super Bowl. Walsh knew he had to mix up his approach or risk boring his students, who in turn would tune him out.
Sometimes the words spoken are not as important as the delivery or approach in getting out the message. And as Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot by just watching."
As the wins keep mounting for the New Orleans Saints and head coach Sean Payton, he is faced with a unique challenge each week of making sure his team does not become too comfortable, too relaxed and always hears his message. Like all great teachers, Payton thinks of different ways to make his point.
The week before the Saints' big game against the Patriots last month, Payton used a fascinating method to deliver his self-scouting analysis of his own team. He informed his players at his regular Monday meeting that on Wednesday Patriots coach Bill Belichick would be speaking to the team.
Everyone thought it was a joke. And it was. Payton showed up and performed his best Belichick impersonation, down to the cut-off hoodie, and with a PowerPoint presentation, broke down his team in a very Belichickian manner.
Everyone in the room knew these were Payton's evaluations -- not Belichick's -- but as the presentation wore on, the players became fascinated with the information, fascinated with the delivery that captivated their attention. The presentation was critical of the team's overall play -- from individual players, to units, to even Payton and his coaching staff.
Payton was able to send a very specific message -- his message -- that was received, not as criticism, but rather as motivation because, after all, this was Belichick, not their coach, attacking them. Within 10 minutes, Payton had gotten his team to embrace his message, and his players were determined to fix the problems that were identified ... by the opposing coach.
On Sunday, Payton was able to keep his players fighting when they faced what seemed like insurmountable odds in the final two minutes against a determined Redskins team. Never did they panic, never did they stop fighting and never did they concede their winning streak was going to end. They hung around, not playing their best game on defense, but they did what they had to do to win the game in come-from-behind fashion.
Now Payton has more material to make another PowerPoint presentation and work on his side job as an impersonator.
Watch out, Frank Caliendo.
» Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem deserves two game balls. On offense, he had 142 receiving yards and a touchdown. On defense, he stripped the ball from Redskins safety Kareem Moore after an interception and carried it 44 yards into the end zone. It was one of the best plays I have seen in my 23 years of being associated with the NFL.
» Phillip Rivers won't win the MVP, but the Chargers quarterback is playing at a MVP level. He has never lost a game in December as a starter for the Chargers, and on Sunday he continued his streak with another stellar performance, throwing for 373 yards on only 25 attempts, or 14.6 yards per attempt. Amazing.
» The Raiders traveled to Pittsburgh in a meaningless game for them, but a huge game for the struggling Steelers. Oakland, which entered the contest 32nd overall in passing yards, was able to drive the ball down the field three times in the fourth quarter for touchdowns, including 88 yards in 10 plays for the game-winning score with nine seconds remaining.
» The Colts showed us why they are still unbeaten after beating the Titans, who had won five in a row. Indy seeems to be able to overcome every challenge the season has presented. Going undefeated is a real possibility.
Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner returned after missing a game with a concussion and looked like he never missed a beat, leading Arizona to an impressive win over the Vikings. Warner had a 127.7 passer rating, his fourth straight 100-plus rating and seventh overall this season. By the way, his team is 7-0 this season in those games. Not bad for a 38-year-old.
» Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham has missed only three field goals this season, but all of them have been crucial to defeats. He missed two in a 7-6 loss at Dallas in Week 11, and his miss from 23 yards in the fourth quarter cost the Redskins a chance to unseat the Saints from the undefeated ranks.
The Chiefs allowed an opponent to gain more than 400 yards of offense for the ninth time in 12 games. Only the Redskins and the Raiders (twice) gained fewer than 400 yards. On Sunday, the Broncos ran up and down the field, gaining 245 yards on the ground and averaging 5.4 yards per attempt.
A problem that haunted the Vikings last year returned. In 2008, Minnesota allowed its opponents to return punts for an average of 19.6 yards per return. The Cardinals had two punt returns for 71 yards, setting up one score. The Vikings have been dominating their opponents all year on special teams, but must fix this problem before they make their playoff run.
Can anyone play run defense in Carolina or Tampa? Both teams piled up more than 150 rushing yards against each other on Sunday. When a defense gets into an eight-man front, the running game should not be successful. That was clearly not the case in Carolina.
On the lookout
» Quarterback Alex Smith might be showing the 49ers faithful that he is the man to trust to lead their franchise. Entering the season, the 49ers were suppose to be a run-first team, but instead have become a much better passing team. On Sunday against Seattle, they had 46 pass attempts to 12 rushing plays ... in a close game. Smith had his first career 300-yard passing game, but it couldn't prevent another road defeat. Smith is getting better, but he does not have the wins to show for his progress.
» Do the Vikings have enough secondary help to stop the prolific passing teams they will face in the playoffs? If Jared Allen can't make plays rushing the passer, the Vikings look awfully soft in the back end to me.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are 7-5 and right in the middle of the wild-card race. I know, I can't believe it either. Every time they play on the West Coast they look bad, but they are resilient. This week they have a big conference game against Miami, but is it big enough for them to manage their first sell-out of the season? The Jaguars are doing their part, now their fans need to do the same.
Off the beaten track
» Holding a running back to a 113 yards isn't exactly shutting him down, but the Colts have to feel pretty good about their effort against Tennessee's Chris Johnson, the NFL's leading rusher, in Sunday's win. They did not allow Johnson to explode for the big play. He averaged a healthy 4.2 yards per carry, but his longest gain was only 11 yards.
» The Chiefs might not be very good on defense, but defensive end Tamba Hali is a great player. He has only 6.5 sacks this season (three coming on Sunday against Denver), but faces constant double teams and chips on every pass play. Imagine how good he could be had the Chiefs not traded Jared Allen?
» The Steelers allowed only 75 points in the fourth quarter all of last season. But this year, after a dozen games, they have already allowed 99, and have lost five out of six games by giving up the lead late.
» The Patriots must fix their red zone troubles on both sides on the ball. This problem started in Week 1 against the Bills and continues today. Their inability to win on the road is in large part due to their failures inside the red zone. ...
» What more can Tony Romo do to help his team win in December? He played as well as he can play against the Giants, but when your team allows 165 return yards, as the Cowboys did on Sunday, it is difficult to win. Add the return yards to the Giants' passing and rushing totals and the game is not as imbalanced. ...
» The running back Seattle could use is playing for the Eagles. Former Seahawk Leonard Weaver was a load for the Falcons to tackle in only five carries. His power and explosiveness gives the Eagles' offense another dimension -- something the Seahawks could really use.
» I know the 'Skins are 3-9, but they have played hard in the last three weeks and are actually a better team without running back Clinton Portis. I strongly doubt Portis will return this year, or next year for that matter. The 'Skins have discovered some new talented skill players in wide receiver Devin Thomas and tight end Fred Davis that makes their offense more effective. ...
» I know I am jumping ahead, but how can any NFC team beat both the Vikings and the Saints on the road in consecutive weeks in the playoffs? That is what it will take for any NFC team other than the Saints or Vikings to be in the Super Bowl. ...
» The Jets had better hope the Colts and the Bengals clinch and have nothing left to play for if they want to get to the playoffs. The Jets' schedule is very favorable with the Bucs this week, then the beat-up Falcons before traveling to Indy and ending the year at home against the Bengals. Those remaining two games might be meaningless for the Colts and Bengals and very meaningful for the Jets.