Here’s the important thing to remember in the NFL postseason:
None of us have the slightest freaking idea what’s going to happen. And when it’s over, none of us will have the slightest freaking idea what really happened.
Oh, sure... before the games actually begin, we can talk about the defense of Team X, or the receiving corps of Team Y. Or Quarterback Z coming off a career year, or Head Coach Q who is 12-1 (or 1-12) in the playoffs. And then there’s Pass Rusher T that can take over a game or Cornerback W who can be left on an island.
I’ll be honest: I’ve never understood those last two. If a cornerback is left on an island, won’t he miss the team bus from the hotel? And if a pass rusher takes over a game, what do the officials do?
We can talk about all of that stuff — and some of it will make an observable difference. But what we can never predict is what will make the difference — the one thing that will allow one team to defeat another.
Tell the truth: could you have guessed that in Super Bowl XLII, the unstoppable 16-0 New England Patriots — who had averaged 37 points a game in the regular season — would lose 17-14 to the 10-6 New York Giants, who had entered the playoffs as the fifth seed? And that the key play of the game would be when David Tyree caught a pass against his helmet?
Speak with honor: did you predict that in 2013, when Peyton Manning became the first quarterback to pass for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season — and be named the NFL MVP and Offensive Player Of The Year — he would reach the Super Bowl game and have a passer rating of 73.5 in a 43-8 loss?
Don’t lie to me: did you expect that just last season, when Nick Foles took over from Carson Wentz in the Week 14 game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams that the Eagles had even the slightest chance to make the Super Bowl — much less win it — under second-year head coach Doug Pederson?
Be honest: would you have predicted that in the highly-anticipated game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Rams in Week 11 — which wasn’t a playoff game, but might as well have been — the key player in the game would be Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam, who scored two touchdowns?
At last count, there were exactly 263,971 different factors that can affect the outcome of an NFL football game. (There used to be 263,970, but after the 2014 season, NFL Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III added “deflated football” to the list). As hard as we try — and as well-informed as we strive to be — we simply cannot predict how all of these factors will interact.
And that’s just for regular-season games. Once the playoffs are underway, it gets hard.
Even when the games are over, we usually don’t really understand what happened — but it’s not for lack of trying. We pore over statistics, endlessly screen All-22 footage, and chart formations until our fingers bleed. But we never know which plays were actually called, what was said in the huddle, how the coaches instructed the players, or who had the responsibility to take that underneath route on the third-and-4 play in the second quarter.
And we never will.
But that won’t stop us from trying to frame a narrative. In the days following the Super Bowl every season, you can even predict the types that will appear.
One constructs a reality where the winner of the NFL championship was essentially preordained — that at moments throughout the season, we should have been able to see that [insert team name here] was always the best team in the league, and their victory in Super Bowl [insert Roman numerals here] was inevitable.
Another creates a legend about how [insert team name] suffered adversity in the season, and with pluck — and sheer force of will — managed to overcome it through the postseason, resulting in a dramatic come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl [insert Roman numerals here].
Yet another says that Super Bowl [insert Roman numerals here] was a travesty, because [insert team name here] didn’t get to play [insert name of 14-2 team eliminated in the divisional round] in the championship, thereby rendering it a hollow victory.
Or how about this one? [Insert team name here] may have won Super Bowl [insert Roman numerals here], but they clearly weren’t the best team in the NFL.
Every one of these is taken directly from the NFL Writers Handbook by Peter King — specifically from Chapter XLI, How To Frame a Super Bowl Narrative.
In fact, even this very article is based on Chapter LIV, How to Write an Interesting Story When Your Team is in the Bye Week of the Postseason.
OK... I’m kidding about the Peter King book. But after one Super Bowl or another, I’ll bet you’ve read an article just like every one of these.
It seems to me that as Kansas City Chiefs fans, what took place in 1993, 1995, 1997, 2003 — well, you know the list — has skewed our perspective on what playing in the postseason really means.
You might say that we’re all suffering from PTSD — Postseason Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even the thought of appearing in a playoff game fills us with the fear of the terrible things that could happen. We have convinced ourselves that until we can field a team that can dominate the game on every side of the ball, we are preordained to fail.
Well... that’s not how it works.
As I hope I’ve shown you, even balanced, dominant teams can — and do — fail in the postseason. Even the league’s most dominant team can be beaten by the right game plan, a big performance by a single player or even a random bounce of the ball — and that’s only three of 263,971 possible factors. It happens all the time.
I looked it up. FiveThirtyEight.com has been calculating each team’s chance to win the Super Bowl since 2014. In the week before the playoffs began, every first-seed team has had at least a 14 percent chance to win the championship game. (Right now, the Chiefs have a 20 percent chance, and the Saints have a 21 percent chance) But no team has had a chance greater than 35 percent.
Why? Because no matter how good a team is, it’s really hard to win three consecutive games against the best teams in the league. Going in to the playoffs, the best you can hope for is a one-in-three chance to succeed. And yet... even just in the past five seasons, two first-seed teams with less than a one-in-six chance won.
American philosopher George Satayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So it’s perfectly acceptable to bring up how few teams have won Super Bowls without a certain level of defense — or any other factor you want to bring up.
But if you do, you also have to remember the other history of the NFL postseason that precedes it: anything can happen. As Chris Berman — another American philosopher — so elegantly put it: “Dat’s why dey play da games.”
As fans, we’d be worried if players on our favorite team looked too far down the road, or spent time thinking about what’s happened in the past. No matter what happened in the last game — or even the last play — we want them to always be focused on one thing: winning the next play, and winning this game.
Maybe it’s time we took our own advice. What happened in the years and decades before doesn’t matter. It has zero bearing on what will happen in the next game.
And that’s all that’s really in front of us right now: the next game. If we win that, there’s another one... and so on. The NFL postseason is nothing more than one extra game to be played, with a chance to play another.
So relax. Open your heart. This isn’t a moment to be feared. It’s a moment to be enjoyed — a moment to be savored.
You don’t need me to tell you why. You already know. This isn’t the end. This is just the beginning.