We're entering Week 17. It's my least favorite week of the NFL season. I call it "Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda" week because a lot of fans -- and in some cases, members of the media -- will point to those near misses. Those are the one, two, and in some cases, three losses that were exceedingly winnable for their teams because those games ultimately came down to one or two plays.
If Garrett Hartley would have made that kick in overtime against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3, the New Orleans Saints would be No. 1 now and in position to secure another NFC South crown and homefield advantage. There's a big difference between that and staring at possibly three straight road playoff games, as the Saints currently are.
If Matt Dodge could have punted the ball out of bounds or if Tom Coughlin would have sent out the hands team against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15, the New York Giants likely would have punched their postseason ticket and maybe even won the NFC East crown. Think that sounds a little better than needing to beat Washington and hoping Green Bay loses in Week 17 to make the playoffs?
In places such as Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, even fans of teams that aren't even sniffing at the playoffs get into the act when counting up how many wins their teams should have. Those wins evaporated because of a Steve Johnson drop for the Buffalo Bills against the Pittsburgh Steelers or a Drew Stanton incompletion against the New York Jets for the Detroit Lions or whatever.
It's human nature, I suppose, but it is also seriously flawed. The first, most obvious problem is that those same fans never talk about the one or two close games that their teams won but easily could have lost. Consider the Lions' recent road victories over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins, as an example. Each could have gone the other way.
The Lions might not have beaten the Bucs if the officials hadn't called a highly questionable offensive pass interference penalty on a Kellen Winslow touchdown that forced Tampa Bay to settle for a field goal. The Lions might not have beaten the Dolphins if Chad Henne hadn't thrown two critical interceptions late in the game this past Sunday, one of which second-year Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy returned for a touchdown.
If the Jacksonville Jaguars fail to make the playoffs, their fans might point to their Week 16 loss to the Washington Redskins as the reason. They might blame not having a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew or rue David Garrard 's interception that set up Washington's game-winning, overtime field goal. To address the former, remember that injuries happen to every team and are just a part of the game. To address the latter, remember Garrard's Hail Mary touchdown pass to Mike Thomas that beat the visiting Houston Texans?
That's the point, and that's the second problem with the "Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda" mindset. So many NFL games come down to one or two critical plays in the latter stages. How your team performs in those situations is often exactly what separates the good teams from the bad ones. There is a reason why the Browns, Bills and Lions have lost so many close games. They just aren't good enough. Or for the Lions, maybe they just weren't good enough until now.
If you are the Oakland Raiders and your kicker, Sebastian Janikowski, missed a couple of easy field goals in a one-point loss to Arizona in Week 3, you deserved to lose the game. One of your key players didn't make the critical plays necessary to secure the victory. It's really that simple.
The NFL is a cruel, unsentimental, zero-sum business, and the only inherent truth is that every team's record is exactly what it should be at any given point. The only thing your team truly deserves is exactly what it has.
From the inbox
Q: How much do players/coaches pay attention to possible playoff scenarios during the end of the season, particularly when they need help to get in? Is there some degree of scoreboard-watching from the sidelines going on during games?
Dave from Bethlehem, Pa.
A: You are told during the week not to look at the scoreboard and just control what you can control, but that is sometimes easier said than done. In some cases, the video and scoreboard operator will post -- or decline to post -- scores or highlights of other relevant games. It depends on whether it is in the team's best interests at that time. I know from experience, however, that players typically find out, especially if it is good news for their cause. It's kind of hard not to, especially if yours is the team that is in need of help in another game.
Q. With Mike Singletary being the latest in-season coaching casualty, I was wondering what's the point in a coaching change with only one game left? Also, what factors do owners take into account when they appoint an interim coach?
Brian from Reading, Pa.
A: I thought the same thing initially, especially considering San Francisco 49ers had a news conference to introduce a guy who is going to be on the job for literally six days, but in this case it gives them a week's head start on other potential coaching moves. There might be moves looming in Houston, Miami, Carolina, etc. Some of the elite candidates, such as Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden, don't want to talk about a job unless it is open. As for appointing an interim head coach, an owner will sense which assistants the players respect the most.
Q: I would like to know if you now take back some of the things you said about Michael Vick. You were particularly harsh with the Eagles organization for signing him in the first place. Do you regret any of those statements?
Roger from London
A: Not at all. I didn't think it made any sense from a purely football standpoint to bring Vick in, considering Donovan McNabb was still playing at a high level and Kevin Kolb was the Eagles' heir apparent. Obviously, I was wrong. It's not the first time and certainly won't be the last. In this case, even the Eagles had no idea Vick could or would play this well. If they did, they wouldn't have tried so vigorously this offseason to trade him for pretty much anything. And they failed to make a trade, I might add, which shows you that nobody else in the league knew Vick would do what he is doing this year.
Q: How much time does an NFL team devote to strength and training during the season, especially now that we're close to playoff time? What muscle group does a team focus on and how many reps/weight is typical compared to September?
Eladio from San Diego
A: Like the offseason programs across the NFL, it really varies from team to team and, especially during the season, from player to player. Some teams mandate that players get at least two workouts in a week to maintain their strength. The reality is that most veteran players are given the freedom to do what they think is best for their bodies to optimize their performances on Sundays. For some, that means maintaining a rigorous pre- or post-practice workout regimen. For others, that may mean never getting within 50 yards of the weight room after November.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.