Contenders feel the pressure
By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer
Playoff berths within sight, Miami, Chicago, Green Bay and even Super Bowl champion Baltimore succumbed to the pressure. Things will be even tighter next week in their season finales.
Maybe those four teams chasing division titles or wild-card berths need to emulate the Eagles and Cardinals, Bengals and Chargers, who made definitive and positive statements Sunday.
Of course, they could go the other way in their finales and replicate the recent performances of the Lions, who completely folded when the squeeze was put on them.
One of the beneficiaries of Detroit’s flop, which concluded with a 23-20 overtime loss at home to the already-eliminated Giants, was Chicago. And after the Packers looked lost in the red zone in their home defeat against Pittsburgh — Green Bay went only 4-3-1 at Lambeau Field this season — the Bears had the NFC North in their hands if they could win in Philadelphia at night.
They didn’t show up.
“Yeah the season is full of disappointments — that is part of the adversity of the season,” coach Marc Trestman said. “We are not happy about it, we are extremely disappointed. But then that has to go away and we have to re-energize ourselves. We have a very important game on Sunday (against Green Bay for the division title).”
The Bears figure to show up for that one at Soldier Field, as do the Packers in the oldest rivalry in pro football. Teams that lay eggs in big spots and still have another opportunity tend to seize those chances. Or at least provide a challenge the next time.
Well, except for Detroit, that is.
“Nobody can quit because we are all made the same way and our goal is to get in the playoffs,” Bears defensive end Jeremiah Ratliff said. “We needed to win this game and I want to get back to work and get the next win in our next game. You can beat yourself up and get in a funk or you can forget about the game.”
Every NFL player is under some kind of pressure in every game. That ranges from simply trying to win on each play to having more points at the end of the day to holding onto a job.
That stress intensifies immeasurably during a playoff chase. The Tom Bradys, Ray Lewises and Adam Vinatieri’s either ignore the pressure or embrace it and perform even better.
Those guys are rare. And what we saw this weekend magnifies the difference between Hall of Fame caliber players and those who struggle when tested in the cauldron of playoff contention.
More exams are coming on Sunday, with Philadelphia at Dallas for the NFC East title; the Green Bay-Chicago matchup; and the wild four-team scramble for the final AFC wild card.
For the last five years, the Ravens have passed inspection with flying colors; they’ve never missed the postseason with John Harbaugh as coach and Joe Flacco as quarterback. So their collapse at home against a banged-up Patriots team against whom they have plenty of recent success was the most stunning.
Yet the Ravens, even with Lewis in retirement, Anquan Boldin in San Francisco, Ed Reed in New York and a slew of other Super Bowl champions from February spread around the league, remain the most trustworthy to come through.
“You know, we’re used to going out there and playing well when we need to when the playoffs are on the line,” said Flacco, who threw two interceptions and looked uncomfortable on a damaged left knee sporting a brace. “We come out hungry and ready to go get ourselves into the playoffs or make that next step toward it, and we just didn’t do it.”
They get one more chance, as do the Dolphins at home against the Jets; the Chargers at home against Kansas City; and Pittsburgh at home against Cleveland in the AFC wild-card race.
If any team is most familiar with folding in win or go home games, it’s Dallas. Hey, the Cowboys nearly disappeared from the chase at Washington on Sunday, rallying from nine points down to stay alive. But having confidence in them to knock off Philly, especially after failing in the same spot the last two years?
“The more times you put yourself in these situations, you have to keep getting better,” Tony Romo said. “You have to have a stronger belief in yourself than the doubt of other people.”
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