With the results of games Sunday and Monday night, the league is facing an unusual situation: In each conference, two of the best teams play in the same division (New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers in the NFC South, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos in the AFC West), and in both divisional races, the two teams in question play each other twice within three weeks in the second half of the season. Kansas City, which lost to Denver 27-17 on Sunday night, will get another shot at the Broncos in Arrowhead on Dec. 1. One week later, the Saints and Panthers begin a three-game sequence in which they play each other twice.
Playing a team twice in a 15-day span presents its own special challenges. Some people think you look at game planning with both contests in mind, holding back certain plays that might be successful for use in the second go-around. This tactic has always struck me as arrogant and unrealistic on its face. A coach would have to be somewhat overconfident to think he can save "good" plays for the second game, operating under the pretense that he can beat his opponent with lesser designs in the initial bout.
More realistically, in Game 2, you will work variations of a theme (by formation or scheme) off of principles that proved successful in the first meeting, and you'll also recalibrate your strategy and tactics based on what didn't work. Through the combination of those two endeavors, you hope to come up with a more nuanced plan for the second game, and you hope your team can make the necessary adjustments.
Of course, the main priority is to analyze what hurt you in the first game and prepare to account for it, because you certainly will see it again in the second game. Case in point: The Chiefs learned they couldn't get to Peyton Manning with just a four-man rush. K.C. entered that game expecting to get after Manning, especially considering his subpar health status, but the veteran quarterback was virtually untouched. Manning is great at getting the ball out quickly, and he leaned heavily on that talent Sunday, with lots of short drops and quick releases. Because it worked, Denver is unlikely to go away from that approach on Dec. 1. Consequently, the Chiefs must figure out a better way to reach Manning.
Secondly, Kansas City learned that you can't play a great deal of man coverage against Denver and expect to be successful. The Chiefs dominated the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in the year with a bunch of man coverage, but they also sacked Michael Vick five times in that game. That accompanying pressure was seriously lacking Sunday night. When he's given time, Manning is just too good at finding the matchup he wants among the Broncos' bevy of gifted pass catchers. Your first and second cover guys might match up well with Denver's top two targets, but your third-best defender likely cannot hang with the third, fourth or even fifth pass catcher in Denver's lineup.
Finally, Kansas City learned that Alex Smith can't simply manage the game and expect to keep up with Manning. Entering the game, K.C. ranked 29th in the NFL in explosive plays (gains of 20-plus yards). The Chiefs had some chances, but they also committed costly penalties, made bad throws, dropped passes and had one extremely harmful turnover. Kansas City will have to be more efficient in the return match.
In any such follow-up game, you must be careful to avoid falling into a pattern that resembles a bad imitation of an Abbott & Costello routine, abandoning something that works for you because ... "They know that we know that they know that we know that they know we're going to do that -- so we will cross them up by doing something different."
We'll see these dynamics play themselves out again next month, beginning on Dec. 8, when the Saints host the Panthers in a heavyweight NFC South bout. Two weeks after that, the two teams will run it back in Charlotte. Just like in Denver vs. Kansas City, this showdown pits a seemingly unstoppable force (New Orleans' offense) against an immovable object (Carolina's defense). And also like Broncos-Chiefs, part of the key will be seeing what the other units do. Can the Panthers' improved offense, with the ascendant Cam Newton, keep up with the high-octane Saints?
Of course, the Broncos face one other difficulty -- namely, that the two huge division games sandwich a conference showdown that is titanic in its own right. Yes, smack in the middle of the home-and-home series with Kansas City, Denver will play a road game against the New England Patriots. For Denver, I am reminded of the legendary Bill Walsh's admonition to "Never underestimate the anticlimactic effect of great achievement." Interim Broncos coach Jack Del Rio must be very mindful of the fact that Sunday's victory was just the first step. Should Denver lose to New England this week or to Kansas City in the rematch, the significance of that initial triumph will be greatly diminished. It's one of the reasons that coaches' messages turn into clichés: They have a measure of truth to them.
While the circumstances and atmosphere might change from one week to the next, teams that are in the playoff chase at this point of the season must have great focus and a short memory. Marty Schottenheimer was famous for his "Midnight Rule," which stated that whether you win or lose a big game, you can only afford to revel in it or drown your sorrows until midnight after the game is played. Then you need to put it aside and start working toward next week.