Parcell's advice to division champs: "Don't back off."
As the season winds down in the NFC, it's becoming clearer: When you consider the teams vying for playoff spots, the eventual Super Bowl representative from that conference will be the one that finishes the regular season the strongest and earns home-field advantage in the playoffs.
That's no revelation, but I say it for a different reason from what home field usually provides. There are definite histories for certain teams now involved that show how home field will be a distinct advantage for some and a tremendous disadvantage for the other teams who have to play on the road.
The southern teams, like the Dome teams or Tampa Bay, certainly can't recall any recent success in Green Bay or Philadelphia. A team like San Francisco has already been beaten at home by Philadelphia and we'll find out this weekend if Green Bay can handle that situation.
The Falcons, who now look like a viable playoff candidate, showed their inexperience by losing road games in Tampa and Green Bay this season. If they don't get home field, they could have a problem.
On the Packers' side of the coin, they lost in New Orleans and in Tampa Bay, so if the Saints or Packers get home field, Green Bay would be at a disadvantage.
All in all, home-field advantage is vital to the NFC teams, and these clubs can't play only to maintain their position. They must play to improve their position in order to ensure that they enter the playoffs with home-field advantage.
Don't back off
I hear a lot of fans, laymen and even coaches say, "Once you win your division you have the opportunity to rest your team and get everybody healthy." There is a degree of truth to trying to get your team healthy when you are entering the playoffs, but not at the sake of losing some of the things that have taken you all season to develop.
The teams that are improving as they go through December -- paying greater attention to detail, keeping the vision they have to maintain an efficient winning performance and not losing their sharpness or sense of urgency -- have the best chance of going far in the playoffs. You can't mentally relax with the task at hand just because there might appear to be a temporary lull due to winning your division.
The teams that can avoid that mentality, and fight to stay as sharp as they can while improving their play as they move forward, will enter the playoffs in good stead.
Detail is now important
For those teams who have already achieved, their head coaches now have a tremendous opportunity to go back and review some of the season's shortcomings. Even though they've been successful, they can look at areas of their teams that have inherent weaknesses that can be rectified before the championship season begins.
Coaches can sacrifice a period in practice to pay attention to a certain detail that seemed inadequate throughout the course of the season. In an effort to prepare for your game, it could be something they didn't have the time to do before. Now they can isolate it and make it an advantage as opposed to a disadvantage.
Those areas could include special teams, short-yardage offense, red-zone offense, two-minute drills, third-down conversions and first-down efficiency on offense. Most of those things can be applied to defense as well, plus better communication in that area is also something where teams might want to be a little sharper.
This time also gives you an opportunity to work on some trick plays you might want to use during the playoffs. You can rehearse those plays so that it's not just a one-time thing when you use it, but you've actually had the opportunity to practice it enough so that you have a reasonable chance to execute it successfully in the game.
Those are the aspects the better teams will be concentrating on as we wind down the season.