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NFL playoffs: When anything can happen, preparation is key

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Ah ... the NFL playoffs. We've waited 11 long months to get back to this time, when regular-season nonsense fades away and the league's best teams face off under a win-or-go-home spotlight.

Every team in the playoffs this season deserves its spot. And the beauty of the playoffs is that it doesn't matter who comes in with nine wins or 15 wins. It doesn't matter who's on a 10-game win streak or who's had a disappointing final quarter of the regular season. It's a new season, and all teams are 0-0.

Anything can happen in the postseason. Remember when the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI after going 9-7? They finished the 2011 regular season with a 3-5 stretch. But because of playoff experience, good coaching and execution, they emerged from a playoff field that included one 15-1 team and three 13-3 squads to claim the Lombardi Trophy. The Giants took the long, hard road, but they did it. And they won't be the last.

Teams that play well and get in at the very end of the season are dangerous. Every team has a chance, and no team should be underestimated, because records, stats or who's going to the Pro Bowl are irrelevant. The team that plays best on Saturday or Sunday each week moves on, leaving its opponent (which is also sometimes the better team) empty-handed.

I was fortunate to play in 18 playoff games during my career with the New England Patriots, and a key part of winning in the postseason was preparation. We took everything to the next level: conditioning, lifting, studying film. Whatever it took, we did more. We knew it was necessary to put even more time in during January, because a trip to the playoffs is what was earned after all of the training in the offseason and regular season.

In our preparation, we wanted to strip the game of the playoff hype. It's a tough thing to do, especially when your team has a first-round bye, because a win in that first game brings the Super Bowl so close. It's important for players to have tunnel vision and minimize the distractions (media, attention, outside pressure) that come with playing on a big stage. Teams that tend to do well and advance in January are not easily diverted by the outside noise.

In the new season of the playoffs, home-field advantage is a huge factor. We are creatures of habit, and we want to be comfortable. Having to travel keeps players out of their comfort zone. The familiarity of playing in your own stadium -- from the crowd noise to where the play clocks are located -- gives you an edge. This is one of the most important things in the playoffs, and it'll be necessary for this weekend's host teams to take advantage.

One play can influence the final outcome, and whichever team plays the best situational football is going to advance. Coaches and players alike must come together to form the best game plan; this was key for us when making our deep playoff runs. It's important for coaches to evaluate themselves and call plays based on what works for their personnel, especially for the teams in this year's field who will be quarterbacked by playoff newbies, like the Texans (Brian Hoyer), the Vikings (Teddy Bridgewater), the Redskins (Kirk Cousins) and, potentially, the Bengals (AJ McCarron) and the Broncos (Brock Osweiler).

Many of the usual factors will play major roles, including the January weather, but there's a new challenge this year: the longer extra point. We've already seen a direct effect of this change on the regular season, as kickers missed just eight PATs last season and a whopping 71 this year. It's not a chip shot anymore. It's a contested play, and points are so valuable in the postseason, as most games come down to the wire.

The fact is, we've got all the components in place for a great final month of football. And considering all of the elements that come with this new season of the playoffs, there's a chance we'll have an unexpected victor.

Who knows? We've seen it before.

Follow Willie McGinest on Twitter @WillieMcGinest.

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