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NFL Blitz: Fast Start Or Fast Finish? Playoffs Tell the Tale


Hot start, cold finish.

Slow start, hot finish.

The NFL playoff field is full of teams fitting either description. There shouldn't be much argument that playing well now, as opposed to having really shined in September, points the way to a championship.

That's what's so troubling about the New Orleans Saints. They roar out to a 13-0 start, they talk freely about shooting for an undefeated season and a Super Bowl title and then they collapse. Three consecutive losses? No way to go into the playoffs.

The Indianapolis Colts? Their players looked so disgusted when the Colts shut down the engines against the New York Jets in the second-to-last game, with the Colts not only ahead but 14-0.

Then, the following week, with most of the starters continuing to watch, the Colts absorbed a pounding from the Buffalo Bills in near-whiteout conditions. No way to go into the playoffs.

Especially against the fired-up Baltimore Ravens, who had to win to get into the playoffs and then went on the road to batter the New England Patriots.

The San Diego Chargers only rested their starters for about three quarters of the regular-season finale and still managed to escape it with a 23-20 win over the Redskins. The Chargers won their last 11 games and buried the memories of a 2-3 start.

"Things weren't looking so good," quarterback Philip Rivers remembers.

Five starters were hurt in the opener, a victory against the Oakland Raiders. But the Chargers kept working younger players into the lineup and continued to improve while the Denver Broncos, after a 6-0 start, slid off the map and into further disarray.

"To start the way we did and to have the winning streak and go on that run like we did and to even win against Washington to keep our momentum going makes it great," linebacker Shawne Merriman says.

Now, after a first-round bye, the Chargers must prepare for the Jets and can do so with rested and ready players.

"Guys were banged up, but now we're healthy," said linebacker Stephen Cooper.

The Dallas Cowboys also got hot at the right time. They started December in typical fashion, with a loss. Then they won their last three, two by shutout, and smacked the Philadelphia Eagles around for their first postseason victory since 1996.

"I think we're playing as good as anybody right now," says Wade Phillips, who had been 0-4 in playoff games as a head coach. "I thought we were there the last three games."

The Cowboys play the NFC's No. 1 seed, the Minnesota Vikings on the road. The Vikings are 8-0 at home this season.

The Cowboys have won their last four by a 99-31 margin, allowing only four touchdowns in two triumphs against the Eagles, one over the Redskins and one over the Saints, whose win streak they stopped at the Louisiana Superdome.

The Saints dropped their last three, beginning with the defeat at Dallas' hands and followed by a pair of losses to non-playoff teams (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers). They blew a 17-0 lead against the Bucs and sat their starters against the Panthers and must now rekindle all of that offensive firepower and defensive risk-taking when they meet the Arizona Cardinals.

"We have a good team in that we understand what's at stake," Saints coach Sean Payton says. "The focus is pretty clear."

QUOTABLE: "Defense was set back 100 years." – New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams after reviewing tape of the Cardinals' 51-45 overtime playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers. ... "I think everyone knows what we want to accomplish. That's been from the start, but I'm not going to get ahead of myself and I'm not going to let my guys get ahead of themselves." – Chargers coach Norv Turner. ... "This will be the biggest game I've played in to this date. It is more special because it is Dallas, the team I grew up rooting for." – Vikings RB Adrian Peterson. ... "I was very stunned. I don't know that it's even hit me yet." – Jim Mora, fired two days after holding his final news conference of the season as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He was dismissed with a 5-11 record and replaced by Pete Carroll. ... "I think he's a great player. His work over the last 11 years proves that." – Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, saying Donovan McNabb would be his starter again next season. ... "I'm gonna miss that little feisty guy." – Redskins G Randy Thomas, on the retirement of offensive line coach Joe Bugel.

EXTRA POINTS: The Cardinals' 51-45 escape against the Pack was only the second in 26 OT playoff games dating to 1958 in which the winning score came on a defensive touchdown. In this one, Karlos Dansby returned a fumble 17 yards. The other game also involved the Packers, but much more happily for them. Al Harris returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown in Green Bay's 23-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field on Jan. 4, 2004. That was the game in which Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck, out for the coin toss, told the officials, "We want the ball and we're going to score." Dansby's TD, 78 seconds into OT, just missed another page in the record book. It was the second fastest OT score in playoff history, two seconds shy of Flipper Anderson's 30-yard TD catch for the Los Angeles Rams against the New York Giants on Jan. 7, 1990. That one was notable because Anderson made the reception, scored and kept running into the tunnel at Giants Stadium, never to look back. ... Much was made going into the third Philly-Dallas game of how hard it is to beat a team three times in one season. Except it's not that hard. Since 1990, 21 teams have swept the season series from an opponent and played them again in the playoffs. The sweeping team has completed the trifecta 14 times, or 67 percent of the time. ... Fired after one season as defensive coordinator by the New York Giants, Bill Sheridan has joined the Miami Dolphins as a LB coach and former Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel agreed to become the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator. Charlie Weis will run the offense. Crennel and Weis were part of the New England Patriots' Super Bowl staff, as was Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. Expect Al Groh (ex-University of Virginia) to get a long look from the Dolphins and his old buddy, Bill Parcells, for the defensive coordinator job that opened when the club sacked Paul Pasqualoni.

Larry Weisman covered professional football for USA TODAY for 25 years and now joins the Redskins Broadcast Network and to bring his unique viewpoint and experience to Redskins fans. He also appears on Redskins Nation, airing twice nightly on Comcast SportsNet, and on ESPN 980 AM radio, all in the Washington, D.C. area. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at and follow him on

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