It’s how you finish, not how you start

That gaudy 6-0 record the Denver Broncos held in October has

faded under an avalanche of weak performances. Unless they win

Sunday and get some help, the Broncos will be watching the

postseason, not participating in it.

When the Giants stormed to a 5-0 mark, talk of winning a second

Super Bowl in three years dominated the New York football scene.

Two months later, the Giants are 8-7 and out of contention.

Never has it been more clear in the NFL that it’s how you finish

that matters. The Giants learned that lesson painfully and are

also-rans. The Broncos could be joining them, along with the Bears

(3-1 to 5-9), 49ers (3-1 to 7-8), Falcons (4-1 to 8-7), and

possibly the defending champion Steelers (6-2 to 8-7) .

Baltimore and the New York Jets each began 3-0. They are 8-7,

but unlike Denver and Pittsburgh, victories on Sunday against

Oakland and Cincinnati, respectively, earn them wild-card

spots.

“We have a great opportunity in front of us,” Jets running

back Thomas Jones said. “It’s so funny how things can change in a

week in this league.”

Not so funny to the Broncos, who could become the third team

since the 1970 merger to go from 6-0 to not making the playoffs,

joining the 1978 Redskins and the 2003 Vikings.

“I’m frustrated because I think we’ve done some great things

this year, but we didn’t finish off well,” said Broncos defensive

end Elvis Dumervil, the NFL sacks leader. “To be able to win in

the NFL, you have to be consistent for 60 minutes, times 17 weeks.

It’s like growing pains, we’ve just got to continue to fight

through it.

“If we’re more consistent, we start fast and finish strong

instead of slumping again at the end like this.”

Meanwhile, the fast closers are quickly becoming part of the

Super Bowl conversation, from San Diego, which has won 10 in a row,

to Philadelphia (six straight) to Green Bay (six of seven). Not

that anyone is dismissing Indianapolis, which just took its first

loss after 14 victories – and led the Jets before pulling many

starters – New Orleans or Minnesota from the conversation.

But there’s no denying the Chargers, Eagles and Packers are

surging. The Saints, Vikings and Bengals are not.

“There’s really no explanation for the way we played over the

past couple of weeks,” Vikings safety Madieu Williams said after

his team was beaten by the Bears on Monday night. “We have to go

back to the drawing board.”

And conjure up something, quickly.

Like their division rivals, the Packers, have done.

Green Bay slipped to 4-4 before a mid-November victory over

Dallas. In that game, the 3-4 defense the Packers switched to this

season began taking hold. The offensive line was solidified when

tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher got healthier.

“We had a sense of urgency and minor desperation, I think,

starting with the Dallas game, and got on a roll,” quarterback

Aaron Rodgers said. “Defensively, those guys started believing in

each other, believing even more in Dom (Capers, the coordinator)

and his strategy, and we’ve got an MVP candidate (Charles Woodson)

on defense. Charles has really taken over games at different points

during this run we’ve been making. And offensively, I think we’ve

figured out some things as well.”

Figuring out why some teams fade and others soar heading toward

the playoffs is no simple matter. Looking at this season, though,

here are some critical factors in the rise of some and the fall of

others.

-Health. As noted, the Packers got back two key ingredients on

their offensive line. San Diego star running back LaDainian

Tomlinson recovered from an ankle problem.

But the Giants lost middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, their

defensive leader, and their secondary has been ravaged. Powerful

running back Brandon Jacobs has been nicked up all year and never

ran with typical abandon.

The Steelers’ seven losses all came with wrecking ball safety

Troy Polamalu either hobbled or sidelined. Atlanta couldn’t survive

injuries to Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, the core of the offense.

Of course, some teams have prospered despite injuries, particularly

Philadelphia, leading to …

-Depth. The Eagles barely have had the services of star running

back Brian Westbrook in 2009, yet rookie LeSean McCoy and versatile

fullback Leonard Weaver more than filled the void. Philly is a

passing team, too, and Donovan McNabb never has had such a deep

group of targets.

Green Bay and San Diego also have plugged in previously unproven

players such as tight end Jermichael Finley (Packers) and wide

receiver Legedu Naanee (Chargers) and not missed a beat.

The Giants’ defense fell apart in part because the backups

showed why they are backups, becoming a liability when given

extensive playing time. Same for the quick-starting Bears.

-Experience and continuity. The Chargers and Eagles have

traveled this path before, as recently as last season. San Diego

rallied past collapsing Denver to win the AFC West and then beat

the Colts in the wild-card round. Philadelphia won four of its

final five games in 2008, then came within one defensive stand of

making the Super Bowl.

Both franchises have had stability in the front office and in

coaching. So has Green Bay. Players who are comfortable with the

system, their assignments and the coaches’ methods usually

prosper.

The Giants had those pluses in their favor, too, but the other

factors overwhelmed them. Denver, Atlanta and San Francisco did

not.

Indeed, the Broncos had the wrong kind of memories stuck in

their mind.

“We have a totally different scheme, different personnel,

different guys upstairs, so it’s not really the same team,”

Dumervil said. “It’s the same situation, different year.”