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How the game is played


If you were still awake and watching as the Steelers drove for the game-winning field goal in their Monday night win in San Diego, you might have asked yourself: When and where have I seen this before? The answer is last December at Alltel Stadium.

The Steelers' game-winning drive against the Chargers was nearly a carbon copy of their 56-yard game-winning drive against the Jaguars, in which the Steelers moved into field goal range, pulled the plug on offense, expired the clock and called on Jeff Reed to do the honors. Against the Jaguars, it was from 37 yards. Against the Chargers, it was from 41.

You know where else you've seen that formula for victory? Everywhere else in the league where good football is played. It's the league-wide formula for victory. It's how you play the game in professional football.

New England did it to Atlanta on Sunday. Move into field goal range, expire the clock and turn it over to Adam Vinatieri. How many times have the Patriots followed that blueprint? They had just done the same thing to the Steelers two weeks earlier.

Those who expect the Jaguars to put teams away are either living in a dream world or just can't drop the college game when Saturday becomes Sunday. Most NFL games come down to one team trying to protect a one-score lead inside the two-minute warning. It was that way for the Jaguars against the Bengals this past Sunday night.

Eight of the league's 14 games last weekend were decided by six or fewer points; five by three or fewer points. You just don't bury good teams. Yeah, every once in a while we get a 52-3 job, as was the case with the Packers and the Saints this past Sunday, but those come along very seldom.

Do coaches play it conservatively when they get a lead? You bet they do and for good reason.

One of the stats they threw out in the Monday night telecast was Bill Cowher's record when he's had leads of 10 points or more. I couldn't believe what I was seeing; 92-1-1, which is now 93-1-1.

Cowher is notorious for taking the air out of the ball when his team gets a two-score lead. He's also lost the lead doing that but his team has come back to win. That was the case this past Monday night in San Diego. The Steelers lost the lead, 22-21, with about four minutes to play in the game. Then came the game-winning, time-expiring drive and the Chargers only touched the ball one more time, on the Steelers' game-ending kickoff.

Good teams find ways to win close games and nobody has been better at it in recent history than the Patriots. They get a lead, they turn the game over to their defense and either the opponent gets wild in its attempt to rally and clinches the win for the Patriots, or the opponent rallies successfully and forces the Patriots to make a play or plays at crunch time. And they always do, don't they?

That's what good teams have in common. They make plays at crunch time, no matter if those plays are made by their defense or by their offense. In the process, they build character. Crunch time tests a team's mettle. It prepares you for the postseason; to be a champion.

Staying aggressive is an act of carelessness, maybe even cowardice. It's another way of saying I don't trust my team to win a close game. It is not the formula of champions.

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