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Regular-season winners don’t always make champs

DENVER: The Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, who tied for the NFL’s best record at 13-3, are well aware of one of the league’s biggest truisms: More often than not, the regular season means little in the playoffs.
Over the last decade, just two of the 13 teams that had the best regular-season record — or tied for the best mark — went on to win the Super Bowl: The ‘02 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the ‘03 New England Patriots.
The last eight teams to enter the playoffs with the best record bowed out before they could put their fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy and revel in a rain of confetti.
Both the Broncos and Falcons are promising to practice like champions this week and not allow rest and relaxation during their first-round bye to turn into rust and ruin.
In the last seven seasons, three No. 6 seeds and a No. 4 seed ended up winning it all, giving hope to the likes of the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings in this year’s playoff pool.
A year ago, the Green Bay Packers rested their regulars in the season finale and they lost their edge, becoming the first 15-1 team to lose its first playoff game — to a New York Giants team that was 7-7 in mid-December and went on to win it all.
“That’s kind of what it was for us when I was in Indy,” Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley said of the ‘05 Colts, who went 14-2 but lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. “We kind of rested the last week, then we had a bye. It’s too much. So, I like just grinding every week, just playing football.” That’s exactly what Peyton Manning’s new Broncos team did, securing the AFC’s top seed on Sunday with its 11th straight win.
Along with the Falcons, Patriots and San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos get a break this week, one that can prove a pitfall as much as a profit.
“We’ve just got to practice like we’re playing this week,” Denver receiver Eric Decker said.
While the Broncos stormed into the playoffs, the Falcons, who already had the NFC’s top seed secured, didn’t gain any momentum by losing to Tampa Bay on Sunday.
“Before this game was played, we were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, at the end of the game, nothing has changed,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez reasoned. “We’re a very good team; we’ll just use this as a wake-up call.” Says another Atlanta veteran, Asante Samuel: “We’re going to practice like champs. And we’re going to play like champs from now on.” So will the Broncos. Coach John Fox is using the bye week to stay sharp, calling for short, crisp practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and a mandatory weightlifting session on Saturday, mainly to keep the team “focused, not concerned with flights to other states and those type of things, especially close states.” Like Nevada, where bookies have made the Broncos the favorite to win the Super Bowl.
Since the first Super Bowl, the team with the best regular-season record has won just 21 of 46 championships, or 46 percent, which is more than in the NHL (42 percent), NBA (41 percent) and Major League Baseball (28 percent), according to STATS, LLC.
“Everyone wants to have the best record, win the division and play at home for the playoffs, but in my opinion, the team that is playing the best has the best opportunity,” said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, a former MVP and Super Bowl champion. “This game is always about confidence and momentum. If you have it, you’re tough to beat, nobody wants to play you and it gives you a distinct advantage. It starts in the regular season and you want to be playing well down the stretch.” Fox says there are a lot of formulas to winning the championship.
“If you look at history, there are plenty of different scenarios,” he said. “At the end of the day, you want to be playing your best football in January so you can get to February. That’s really the only formula I know that’s 100 percent.”