Winning teams can't get too high

The Colts, Titans, Packers and Panthers are on an emotional high. But they know that can only carry them so far.

Updated: January 8, 2004, 5:08 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

During the halcyon days for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a stretch of the 1970s in which the franchise captured a remarkable four Super Bowl titles in six years, Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll regularly cautioned his troops about the flip side of success.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning was pumped up during his first playoff win.
As the highest profile team in the league, Noll told his players, they could expect to elicit passionate performances from even the lowliest club on the schedule. Noll knew that the Steelers were squarely positioned in every opponent's crosshairs, that beating Pittsburgh could make a team's season, that the first sign of black and gold uniforms was just like waving red in front of a raging bull.

But there was something else Noll imparted to those Steelers teams: His belief that the emotion with which other teams approached a game with Pittsburgh would only get an opponent so far. That eventually, if the Steelers could survive the first wave of passion in a game against an underdog foe, superior talent would inevitably take over. Raw emotion, Noll understood, was a commodity with a notoriously short shelf-life.

So how does The Noll Theory on Emotion still relate, a dozen seasons after he coached his final game, to the NFL of the present day?

We may be about to find out this weekend, when the NFL convenes its divisional playoff games, a round that certainly features several franchises riding emotional highs. Certainly the four teams in question -- Carolina, Green Bay, Indianapolis and Tennessee -- possess more than enough talent to compete this weekend on the road. At the same time, though, there is no denying all four franchises are riding the crest of an emotional wave.

Whether that wave grows into a tsunami strong enough to carry them to a conference title game appearance, or merely drags the team ashore at low tide, remains to be seen.

Record of home teams in divisional playoffs since 1990
Year AFC NFC
2002 2-0 2-0
2001 2-0 1-1
2000 1-1 2-0
1999 1-1 2-0
1998 2-0 2-0
1997 1-1 2-0
1996 1-1 2-0
1995 1-1 1-1
1994 2-0 2-0
1993 1-1 2-0
1992 1-1 2-0
1991 2-0 2-0
1990 2-0 2-0
Totals 19-7 24-2
"The reality is, the Kansas City Chiefs don't care at all that we're feeling pretty good here about ourselves, do they?" said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who earned his first playoff win last Sunday with a performance for the ages. "Heck, yeah, you always want to play with emotion. But it still comes down to making plays."

There is a feeling in some quarters, however, that emotion has a role in the playmaking process. The suggestion is that a heightened sense of awareness promotes focus and, thus, the ability to come up big at crunch time. Players and coaches might believe that but two veteran sports psychologists dismissed the theory.

In fact, noted Dr. Phil Landsdowne, a team that is too "amped up" is one more prone to errors of omission and commission. The overly emotional team, he insisted, is a team that actually loses concentration. There might be some initial advantage, Landsdowne offered, but it is a short-lived high that might carry through one quarter or less. The first negative moment, for teams relying too much on emotion, is like the pin in the balloon.

Said Landsdowne: "You can't replace preparation with emotion and hope to make it through. I mean, no one at (the NFL) level would ever do that, I don't think. I guess the old saying about having everything in moderation holds true. You don't want to be flat, but you don't want to be sky-high, either."

Of course, none of the four franchises noted above are counting on emotion as the trump card this weekend, and realize that adrenalin or karma or destiny won't mean very much at all if they execute poorly. Still, here we are with a playoff round in which the Packers enter as if they've been sprinkled with pixie dust, where the Panthers continue to surprise even themselves with their emerging offense, and where the Tennessee walking wounded provide plenty of inspiration.

"You think it doesn't mean something to the rest of us guys," acknowledged Titans star weak-side linebacker Keith Bulluck, "to see Steve (McNair) out there on a bad ankle and Eddie (George) playing with a dislocated shoulder? That warrior's mentality can't help but (inspire) you. I mean, that kind of heart is more than just the rah-rah (stuff) you hear about, OK? It's more meaningful than any speech a coach can give you. You lead by deed and not by words. When you see Eddie come back out of the locker room, you figure, 'If he can play with a busted shoulder, man, I can suck it up, too.' That's how it is."

You think it doesn't mean something to the rest of us guys to see Steve (McNair) out there on a bad ankle and Eddie (George) playing with a dislocated shoulder? That warrior's mentality can't help but (inspire) you. I mean, that kind of heart is more than just the rah-rah (stuff) you hear about, OK? It's more meaningful than any speech a coach can give you.
Keith Bulluck, Titans LB

More important than George's "busted" shoulder in the game at New England, though, will be his ability to break some runs against the Patriots' stingy defense. The first time that Brett Favre confronts one of the exotic blitzes designed by Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, he won't enough have time to think about how Cardinals wide receiver Nathan Poole bailed out the Packers in the regular-season finale with his scoring grab on the final play of the game. Carolina cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. won't reflect on last week's impressive victory when Rams wide receiver Torry Holt is running his signature deep square-in.

Depend too much on a wave of emotion, players have to know, and you'll soon enough be waving good-bye to your postseason experience.

Green Bay coach Mike Sherman allowed this week that he believes in divine intervention but he doesn't expect it to replace the blessed interception by cornerback Al Harris which dispatched the pesky Seattle Seahawks in overtime last Sunday afternoon. Sherman does emphasize that the series of events that catapulted the Packers into the playoffs and now the divisional round, coupled with the emotion Favre generated in the wake of his father's death, has created momentum for his team.

In much the same way, Manning and coach Tony Dungy hope that there is some residual carryover this week, a positive reinforcement fueled by last weekend's monkey-off-the-back rout of the Denver Broncos. Both men are pragmatic enough to know, though, that to go on the road and win at Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday will take more touchdowns than touchstones.

"The highest highs," said Manning, "don't ever stay high too long in this league."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE