"The key to success is reaching out, extending yourself, striking, and then, if you fail, bouncing back and doing it again -- being so resourceful that finally, when the moment comes again, you won't hesitate. What makes this possible is having a plan that's broad-based enough so any number of situations may be treated as decisive moments. The main thing is to increase your chances, not live or die on one alone."
-- From "Finding the Winning Edge" by Bill Walsh.
Halfway through the NFL season, the "reaching out" has begun in the form of teams positioning themselves for the playoffs. Though it's still October, I think we confidently can say the Super Bowl winner most likely will be one of eight teams: the Bengals, Colts, Chiefs, Broncos, Saints, Packers, 49ers or Seahawks. One also could make the case that the Patriots, Ravens and Lions belong on the list, though all of those teams have fundamental issues to resolve if they're going to be true contenders.
Of course, within all organizations, any type of playoff talk in Week 9 should be seen as premature. When I was coaching the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, I instituted a rule forbidding anyone on the team from even mentioning "the P-word" until we actually had qualified for the postseason (we went on to win the Super Bowl). Yet, the 8-0 Chiefs and the rest of the contenders surely face a constant tugging. Kansas City's players know that each of the 20 other teams to start 8-0 in the Super Bowl era have gone to the playoffs. The savvy veterans will understand the enormous difference between finishing first in the tough AFC West (a 13-3 record might be good for a No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason) and second (an otherwise-superb 12-4 mark could yield a No. 5 seed).
At its heart, the idea that the Chiefs will go undefeated this season is a preposterous notion. Kansas City struggled to beat Oakland, Houston and Cleveland at home over the past three weeks, and the Chiefs' final eight games also are the toughest on their schedule. But in this era of saturation coverage by sports media, the run at perfection will come up. And if Kansas City somehow does go 16-0, that accomplishment will be followed by immediate chants of "Can they win the big one?" and reminders that even the 16-0 Patriots ultimately fell short in the 2007 campaign.
The distraction of the "undefeated" buzz surely will prompt a rote response from Andy Reid -- something like, "We're just playing one game at a time" -- and that is exactly the approach the Chiefs must take. Still, it will be impossible to completely ignore constant references by the fans and media. Beyond trying to control the talk in the building, Reid doesn't really have a say in it. The fans and media will pound away until the Chiefs lose their first game. After that, the talk will focus on whether or not K.C. can secure a No. 1 seed and how close its defense can come to the single-season records for sacks and scoring D. Ultimately, it's OK to be energized by the euphoria that winning brings. It makes it that much easier for a coach to get everyone to buy into the program. And the talk of records broken and playoff possibilities can be used as a carrot -- a kind of validation -- for your team.
In 1998, I was offensive coordinator for a Minnesota Vikings team that started 7-0 before losing a mid-year game to the Buccaneers in Tampa. Though the defeat was disappointing, it killed the distracting "undefeated season" talk (the Denver Broncos were on the same path that year, going 13-0 before falling to the New York Giants) -- and we went on to finish 15-1. Of course, we also were chasing the all-time offensive scoring record, which proved to be a motivating mechanism -- though we never would have acknowledged that publicly, sticking to our mantra of "Just win the next game."
Reid also will repeat the oft-heard critique that his Chiefs haven't played anyone yet -- which, to a degree, is a legitimate point, as nobody Kansas City has beaten currently holds a winning record. He will challenge his players to continue to prove they're as good as their record indicates. And they're already picking up on that challenge.
"I think we love it," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said at at a news conference Sunday when asked about getting opponents' best shot. "Coach Reid talks about it all the time, and you want a team's best shot. You want the stages to get bigger ... you want that honor. I think it's a great thing, no question."
There's a temptation to compare the second-half schedules of Kansas City and Denver. (Both have five road games and five divisional games -- two each vs. San Diego and two against each other, plus one each at Oakland. The Chiefs also visit Buffalo and Washington and host Indianapolis, and the Broncos visit New England and Houston and host Tennessee.) But both squads will have to avoid all that talk. If they don't, their seasons will implode.
Reid and John Fox will remind their teams that no one can win an NFL playoff game in November. They have work to do, and that work, to a great extent, will define their course in January; they'll either get the easy way (win two home games and go to the Super Bowl) or the hard way (win three road games before heading to the title game).
Reid will keep the Chiefs focused on winning the next game and trying to stay on top of what suddenly has become the most competitive division in the NFL. (The Chargers also are having a strong first season under Mike McCoy, and even the Raiders are showing signs of life, thanks to Terrelle Pryor.) In the weeks ahead, as the schedule grows tougher, Kansas City will try to get big-money wideout Dwayne Bowe more involved and pray for continued (relative) good health.
What about the other contenders? Here are the main issues facing each entering the second half of the season:
Cincinnati Bengals: Cincinnati has the AFC's best defense this side of Kansas City, as well as a maturing quarterback in Andy Dalton, who has looked tremendous the past three weeks. However, the Bengals' running game -- they're averaging a paltry 3.6 yards per carry this season -- still needs to prove itself. Marvin Lewis will stay committed to it regardless, and that is a strength.
Denver Broncos: Denver still is the team to beat in the AFC, with Peyton Manning leading the most dangerous attack in the league. The Broncos' defense simply needs to live up to its collective talent. Von Miller was a factor Sunday against Washington, and if he maintains that level of play, Denver won't be giving up 48 points in a game again anytime soon. The Broncos will commit to getting Champ Bailey healthy by the playoffs, even if it means he misses the rest of the regular season.
New Orleans Saints: New Orleans is in the same boat as Cincinnati, needing only to commit itself to the run game to prove it's a bona fide contender. The Saints will be tough to beat in the Superdome in January. While coordinator Rob Ryan has done an incredible job, I'm still not entirely sure their defense is for real. A playoff game with Green Bay or San Francisco would go a long way toward determining that.
Green Bay Packers: The emergence of Eddie Lacy has given this team a running game. Meanwhile, there might not be a better quarterback in the league than Aaron Rodgers. What the Packers need to worry about is their pass defense, which has been gutted twice in the past calendar year by Colin Kaepernick. Among the contenders, only Denver is giving up more yards per pass than Green Bay.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers already have addressed many of their issues. The season started out with Kaepernick being billed as the next iteration of ideal quarterback, but by Week 6, people were asking if the team had put its chips on the wrong signal-caller. In the past month, though, Kaepernick has steadied; he's beginning to express himself on the field as fluidly as he did during San Francisco's Super Bowl run last season. Keep in mind the fact that Kaepernick still has just 18 NFL starts and that, Anquan Boldin excepted, he's been working with an Arena League-quality complement of wide receivers. In the long run, the kid's going to be fine.
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle's defense might be the best in the NFC. Young quarterback Russell Wilson has had some off games, but he's been mostly strong. What the Seahawks need to do is figure out how to integrate Percy Harvin into the offense upon his return to the field. This is particularly important now that the talented but injury-prone Sidney Rice is out for the season. If this offense rounds into shape, it's conceivable that we'll get an epic NFC Final Four of Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans.
As for the three teams on the bubble:
New England Patriots: The Pats will spend extra time honing Tom Brady's chemistry with his group of mostly misfit receivers. The accumulation of injuries keeps me from putting great faith in the Patriots' ability to mount a Super Bowl run, primarily because they likely would have to do so on the road.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have the pedigree to still make a run; they'll embody the ultimate example of the "let's just get to the playoffs" mindset. Baltimore's defense is solid if not spectacular, but thus far, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice have been pedestrian. That could change at the right time, as it did last January.
Detroit Lions: This team can be scary good or scary bad. If the Lions use their last-minute Week 8 win against Dallas to build some momentum -- and if they can avoid being the Lions team that gives up a brain-lock/inexplicable loss, say to Pittsburgh (Week 11) or Tampa Bay (Week 12) -- they can make a run. They are, obviously, overly reliant on Calvin Johnson and will need defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to steady a high-risk/high-reward scheme on that side of the ball.
Harrison: Week 9 Power Rankings
All those storylines will play out in the weeks ahead, but for now, the spotlight will be on unbeaten Kansas City. I wouldn't be too eager to dismiss the Chiefs based on a soft schedule thus far, as this is a complete team. Kansas City has the best pass rush in the league, a solid running game and a passing offense that, while not explosive, has consistently moved the sticks. Smith has been the perfect quarterback for this team, much like Trent Dilfer was the perfect quarterback for the Ravens in 2000.
The difference is, when the Chiefs begin their playoff run, they'll face a gauntlet of quarterbacks that could include Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers in the AFC. In the Super Bowl, they could face Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Colin Kaepernick or maybe even Russell Wilson. In the Ravens' championship run, we faced Brian Griese, Steve McNair, Rich Gannon and then Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl.