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"Must Win" Situations
by Bryan Leonard - 10/20/2010
The pressure's on every Saturday and Sunday! With football season in full swing, you'll hear media prognosticators proclaim with regularity, "This team doesn't want to start 0-4. Therefore, this is a must-win game that they have to win!" All right, so be it. That's as superficial a statement as one can find, which is often the case with newspaper, radio and TV "experts." But is it true? Of course not. Teams want to win every game, of course, but we know that doesn't happen (at least it hasn't happened in the NFL since the 1972 Dolphins.)
With October upon us, there already have been many NFL surprises. The good surprises have been the Chiefs, Bucs and Bears. The bad surprises have been even more plentiful, with the performances of the Panthers, 49ers, Raiders and Bills. This leaves situations each Sunday where teams HAVE to play better and win.
But simply willing a team to rise to another level and start winning isn't that simple. It's important for handicappers to examine a team's strengths and weaknesses carefully. You can make the statement that the Cowboys are in a must win situation Sunday against the Giants, but will that make them play better?
I recall a few years ago in the NFL when the Bills had a must-win game after an 0-2 start. It was also a good spot, as the team was home off a bye week and going up against the defending champs. Buffalo played hard, but mistakes and a fired-up will to win still weren't enough to keep them from going 0-3 in a 31-17 loss. Tampa Bay, too, was in a similar boat that same week. Lacking offense, the Bucs had the misfortune to face a terrific Denver defense. Again, the home crowd wasn't enough to keep them winless. They didn't even get the cover, instead squeezing out a push.
That same season the Chiefs came home to face Carolina in a battle of 0-2 teams. Kansas City was a big home favorite, despite having a defense that appears just as bad as last season. As a 6-point home favorite, they couldn't win or cover in a 24-21 loss to the Panthers. That, too, was a "must win" game for KC.
But just because a team "has to win" doesn't mean they have the personnel to win or cover. Other times, the opponent is able to exploit a weakness by the "must win" team, like the Broncos did last week at Tennessee, throwing the football 100 times, in seems, on the way to an upset victory.
"Needing to win" didn't help the NY Mets a few years ago when they flopped in late September, blowing the pennant. Nor did it help the Dallas Cowboys two years ago in Week 17, when they needed to win at Philly – and lost 44-6! It's smarter to look for on-field matchups or other emotional factors, such as revenge, than "must win" spots. Overall, successful handicappers don't get swayed by talk about "must win" situations.