For plenty of players and coaches, postseason football boils down to slaying ghosts.
For every Patrick Mahomes -- just beginning to pen his playoff story -- you have a Philip Rivers, 37 years old and wondering if his path will ever lead to the Super Bowl. The clock is ticking, the vast majority of his career is in the rear-view mirror and Rivers knows another shot at the Lombardi -- if this campaign fizzles out -- is far from guaranteed.
Come January, the vice grip tightens and all wiggle room withers away. Especially for the following list of people feeling an added dose of pressure as kickoff nears on a playoff date with fate:
1) Chiefs coach Andy Reid: With one playoff win over the past decade, Reid is looking to wipe out the memory of last year's ugly postseason loss to the Titans -- and with it, the lingering stink of four Kansas City playoff quests that crumbled quickly on the heels of otherwise-promising double-digit-win seasons.
This edition of the Chiefs, though, feels entirely different. Instead of sturdy-but-limited Alex Smith at the controls, Kansas City is laced with a ceiling-free superstar under center in Patrick Mahomes. Reid, meanwhile, has written the master code on a juicy playbook dotted with college concepts, next-level trickery and uber-creative twists.
The loss of runner Kareem Hunt stings, but Reid and the Chiefs still have plenty of playmakers on the roster -- on both sides of the ball. Yes, K.C.'s 26.3 points allowed per tilt are the most of any playoff squad, but this defense boasts a powerful pass rush. The Chiefs finished with a league-high 52 sacks, milking disruptive handiwork from Chris Jones (15.5 takedowns), Dee Ford (13) and Justin Houston (9).
Set to play at home for as long as they roam, this year's Chiefs have essentially nothing in common with those Smith-led operations of days old. Moreover, today's AFC houses a Patriots team that -- for the first time in eons -- feels vulnerable. Known around the NFL as a godfather-type figure to so many of the younger coaches he helped mold, Reid is missing just one thing: a title. This is his finest shot in a million moons to nab the blue ribbon and quiet any lingering doubts about his ability to own the January-into-February cycle.
2) Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: Reid was a 37-year-old, largely anonymous tight ends coach with the Packers when Jerry Jones last lifted the Lombardi. That came all the way back in January of 1996, when the Troy Aikman-led Cowboys knocked off a Steelers squad quarterbacked by Neil O'Donnell. Imagine Jones being told at that moment that Dallas would travel another two-plus decades without even reaching a Super Bowl. Or that his backup passer, Jason Garrett, would become his head coach in 2010 and manage just one playoff win over the next eight-plus campaigns.
Jones isn't under pressure the same way these other players and coaches are -- simply because he's not about to show himself the door, no matter how ugly it gets -- but his legacy is tugged down deeper every time Dallas gets whacked.
3) Saints passer Drew Brees: Will New Orleans still exist in this year's playoff derby when Brees turns 40 years old on January 15? Their divisional encounter with fill-in-the-blank comes days earlier, doubling as another golden opportunity for this future Hall of Fame passer to get back to a Super Bowl stage that has proven ultra-elusive ever since the Saints bounced the Colts in XLIV.
A championship ring already rests on his finger, but Brees hasn't mined beyond the Divisional Round since that title run. Given that the Saints nabbed the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs by ripping off 13 wins in 14 games before resting Brees in a meaningless Week 17 bout, anything less than a trip to Atlanta would loom as a vast disappointment for a marvelous player nearing the end.
Perhaps Bill Belichick and friends are slow-playing society in crafty fashion, but another Super Bowl run feels like a tall order with Rob Gronkowski not himself; Josh Gordon shipped into absentia; and Tom Brady, at times, looking quite unlike the level-beyond-human flinger who typically burns brightest in January.
All of this makes the Patriots unabashedly fascinating in a way we've never experienced. For so long, we watched to see if anyone could possibly take out the most powerful franchise in sports. That feels inevitable this time around, begging a different question altogether: Will Brady -- who'll be 42 next season -- ever return to these heights again?
5) Houston's J.J. Watt: Turning 30 in March, Watt missed Houston's last playoff appearance due to an injury-eradicated 2016 campaign that kept him in the shadows for all but three game days. Two seasons later, he's back and coming off a brilliant 16-start season that saw him finish second league-wide with 16 sacks and atop the NFL with a whopping seven forced fumbles.
In years past, Watt was asked to take over playoff games all by himself -- turnovers, sacks and even a defensive touchdown against the Bengals in January 2012 -- but times have changed. Instead of Houston being saddled with Brock Osweiler, Brian Hoyer or T.J. Yates at quarterback, Watt's Texans now fly with the marvelous Deshaun Watson at the wheel.
They're far from pristine, but the Texans can hang with anyone when Watson is at his best. Combine that with a monster January from Watt, and Houston has a shot. It's fair to wonder how many more years Watt has left at this level. The pressure is turned way up to make the most of this postseason bid.
6) Back to Rivers: He hasn't started a playoff game in half a decade, but getting there isn't enough. Rivers has achieved just about everything one could've imagined when the Giants traded him to the Bolts for Eli Manning on draft day so many eons ago. He's started every single game since 2006 and arguably played his finest regular season yet in 2018. He's a Hall of Fame talent and one of football's most likable humans -- but no ring. No moment atop the mountain, staring down at all the others. If it doesn't happen this winter, will it ever?