For almost every one of the 12 teams left in the NFL's championship tournament, playoff football doesn't come as a surprise. Many of these teams have known since October that they likely were going to be playing in the postseason.
And when a team reaches December on a playoff track, you can tell. There's a sense of sharpened focus and common purpose that, though hard to define, is unmistakable when you're a part of the team. Practices are crisper. Fuss is reduced. More players are staying after practice to look at film. No one's late for meetings. Even the locker room is cleaner.
Near the end of the season, as a coach, you can recognize this and ease up a little bit. If the team looks sharp and focused, you might get through practice 15 minutes early and let your guys go.
But this week -- the fleeting time between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the postseason -- presents a unique challenge. In the playoffs, everything that is good about football gets even better. Playoff football is special. It's not just that the stakes are higher or that careers and reputations are made and lost; it's also that the games are better and more fiercely played. These battles stay in the memory long after most regular-season bouts are largely forgotten.
It is the purest teaching environment you will ever experience. At this point in the season, with the success the team already has enjoyed, everyone puts egos aside -- everyone buys in.
On the flip side, there's also a component of fear.
When you get to the playoffs, you go through each day with the presumption that you're going to be hard at work until the first Sunday in February. But for each team, there's also the unspoken fear that everything might be just about to end. Every week you stay alive, you are moving a step closer to an achievement that will follow (and define) you the rest of your days. You've bridged cultural and philosophical differences, overcome petty disagreements and come together as one team. And yet, in the backs of people's minds, there is the realization that if you lose the next game, these 53 players and 20 or so coaches will never again all be in the same room at the same time. At the end of every season, no matter how successful, a team changes. Your core might stay together, but a lot of pieces will be new by the time you're playing for keeps again in September.
All of this, of course, ratchets up the pressure exponentially.
So as a coach, you have to strike a balance between seizing the day on one hand and not going mentally to that "But what if we lose?" place on the other. You also have to make sure that your team does not leave its best game on the practice field. Even if you can control the mood and tempo in the building, the fans will get your players hyped on a daily -- if not hourly -- basis as they go about their lives.
Like in any other truly collaborative function of life, the single biggest fear is "Please, God, don't let me be the one who lets his teammates down." I tried layering this on my Baltimore Ravens at the outset of our 2000-01 playoff run. Prior to our wild-card showdown with the Denver Broncos -- the game I was most concerned about as I sized up the playoff competition -- I told the players: "Look, plain and simple, Mike Shanahan is a better coach than I am. He has two Super Bowl rings, and this is my first playoff as a head coach. Head to head, he kicks my ass. But I know you guys are better than they are, and that's what we will lean on. You will make it happen."
The temptation to try to do too much -- to try to live that tired cliché of "raising our game to the next level" -- can be dangerous. And that's not just for players; coaches can be susceptible, as well. Looking to surprise an opponent who might know you all too well, sometimes coaches out-think themselves. Everyone on the team needs to do their best, of course, but they also need to stay within themselves.
In the end, what you're attempting to do is impose your will -- in all three phases of the game -- with more sharpness and consistency than you have all season ... while another excellent team is desperately attempting to do the exact same thing against you. Playoff games are rarely won on the sideline, but coaches can cost their teams games -- by getting their players wound too tight, or growing too conservative as the action unwinds.
You have to always be mindful, not only of the situation, but also about your personnel. In our postseason run to the Lombardi Trophy, my toughest decisions involved going against my natural instinct to be aggressive offensively. I had to realize -- and keep reminding myself -- that we could settle for field goals and that would usually be enough to win, given that we had the best single-season defense in the history of the game.
As you move into the postseason, you want the routines that the team has come to rely upon -- the scouting reports, the practices, the meeting schedule -- to stay the same. You want your team to be totally comfortable in that routine, without any possible distractions cropping up. And then, throughout the coaching staff and from the leaders of the team on down, the focus must sharpen; mistakes must be eliminated.
By the time the weekend arrives, your players should be rested, prepared and ready to express themselves. You might not win every game in January, but more than anything else, after all the work and sweat that you've expended to get to the playoffs, you don't want to eliminate yourself.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.