There's a lot of hype surrounding the league's six undefeated teams. And there should be. After all, they've posted perfect marks five weeks into the season.
Within that group, there are a few surprises -- but some were, well, predicted to be this good.
Why aren't we shocked that New England (4-0) and Green Bay (5-0) are sitting comfortably atop their divisions? These teams didn't say, "Hey, let's win all of our games this year." They've formed the right equation and executed a game plan to get to this point. They started winning long before this season, and you know what they say about winning ... it's contagious.
New England and Green Bay are tied with the longest active playoff streaks, having appeared in the playoffs for six seasons running. The Patriots have arguably created a dynasty that has stood since the millennium -- standing out among even the top-tier teams of the league -- by qualifying for the playoffs 12 times in the last 14 seasons, making six Super Bowl appearances and winning the Lombardi Trophy four times in that span. Green Bay has made the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, capturing one Super Bowl victory.
Two other undefeated teams -- Denver (5-0) and Cincinnati (5-0) -- have been to the playoffs four seasons in a row. But recent success is not the exclusive domain of the undefeated. Indianapolis -- which has won three straight after an 0-2 start -- is another organization that has been consistent in the last decade or so, as the Colts have made the postseason 12 times in 13 years while going 1-1 in Super Bowl games in that span. And some would argue that the 2-3 Seattle Seahawks have started their own winning tradition. For Pete Carroll and his 'Hawks, making back-to-back Super Bowls speaks for itself.
So what goes into making a consistently good team? During my playing days, I learned that it's not about game day -- it's about the other six days of the week.
First and foremost, it starts with the coaching staff. There's a lot more that goes into each week than just a game plan. Coaches must evaluate players' past performances and hone in on their strengths and weaknesses to prepare for the next opponent. But perhaps the most important part is finding a creative way to motivate the team.
Good coaches often find ways to put their teams in the underdog position, motivating players to step up. When teams win a lot, they tend to get lackadaisical and fall into "trap games," losing contests they probably shouldn't. When I played in New England, we used negative connotations from the media or our peers as motivation each week. Come Sunday, whatever was going on, we put it all on our opponent. That certainly helped keep us from having a letdown.
Game-planning means nothing if players don't buy in, and getting them to do so might be the most challenging part for coaches. It's tough to coax grown men with egos who make a lot of money to buy into a system; the only way to do it is to win consistently. Each part of the game plan must be broken down and communicated to the players, because roles frequently change.
A winning tradition gradually forms when players accept role changes and play unselfish football. Adjusting to a new role isn't always easy, because the new game plan might decrease personal stats. In New England, outside linebackers dropped into coverage about 30 percent of the time. I loved rushing the quarterback and getting sacks, but winning was more important. I wanted to play at a high level and be recognized, but if you don't win, none of that matters. Through team success, you achieve individual success. Sometimes, players don't understand that. But an organization stocked with team-oriented players has no ceiling.
It takes a small core of guys to start that kind of thinking. Then it becomes infectious. The players are like sponges -- soaking in new knowledge each week -- and focus on one game at a time.
Greatness also happens when teammates are competitive with one another. We were competitive in New England, at everything from who was the most hydrated to who got the most workouts in and who got there first in the morning. If I was at a workout early and someone else wasn't, I'd leave a note in that person's locker saying, "Hey man, hope the sheets were warm." We did that stuff all the time, and it wasn't taken personally. To be consistently successful, players have to challenge each other -- you see that with teams, right now, like Seattle. It's not contrived; it's natural.
A winning mentality becomes contagious when a team has the right players leading the charge -- a nucleus of guys who've been in the system and believe in it, and who motivate others by virtue of their quality play and decorated résumés. If guys walk into a locker room in Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers is telling a young receiver what he needs to do, I don't think the receiver -- or anyone else, for that matter -- is going to second-guess that.
When all of these components come together for a team, there's a certain feeling. During practice, players aren't thinking; they're just reacting to what they see. When guys are communicating -- calling out formations or tendencies they see -- that's when it's fun. That fast-play feeling builds confidence, and then on game day, every part of the unit is ready to play. More importantly, it's ready to win.
The ultimate goal is to win every single game. Realistically, of course, that's not going to happen. But losing should be the worst thing ever. If players are comfortable with it, then it's a problem. If it's acceptable and a lot of excuses are made, there's a problem. Regardless of record or the quality of a team's opponent, the team has to go into every game thinking a win is the end result. The reset button is then hit the next week, and the next week and the next ...
Some teams are just figuring out how to execute a system, but great teams have perfected that entire process through the years. The consistently good organizations aren't looking ahead to the playoffs or a highly anticipated rivalry matchup in December. They're worried about winning the week, the day or the hour.
And it's pretty clear which teams are already thinking that way -- they're the ones we'll most likely still be watching come February.