What Last Sunday’s NFL Games Teaches Us About Comebacks

When the Green Bay Packers went into the locker room at halftime Sunday, Coach Matt LaFleur had one message for his team. As far as he was concerned, the score was 0-0, and the team still had two quarters to play. In truth, the scoreboard didn’t say 0-0; it read 20-7 in favor of the home team Green Bay, hosting the Chicago Bears. But after a day of watching the scores around the rest of the league, LaFleur knew his team couldn’t afford the satisfaction of taking their foot off the pedal – not even a little.

You see, the Chicago-Green Bay game, one of professional football’s oldest and finest rivalries, began on Sunday at 8:20 pm ET, which meant it was the last scheduled game of the day. And while LaFleur’s pre-game preparation would focus mostly on his team and its rival, he noticed a certain trend from the day’s earlier games as, one by one, teams blew leads or significant opportunities to win – and wound up losing.

By prime time, the day’s lesson was clear: come-from-behind wonders happen when one team plays through the final whistle, while the other lets up, even a tiny bit.

Momentum is a fascinating, if also challenging topic, but it certainly seemed to be in play all day. What’s more, it seemed directly linked to the focus and resolve shown by each team.

Look what happened to Miami where the Dolphins trailed the Baltimore Ravens by 21 points late in the game and came back to win 42-38 behind six touchdowns of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Yes, Tagovailoa’s performance, along with his receivers, was stellar, but what happened to the guys on the other side of the ball?

In the meantime, the Cleveland Browns managed the truly inexplicable by going up 30-17 against the New York Jets with only 1:55 left on the game clock – a feat that earned Cleveland a 99.9 percent win probability. Yet Cleveland still managed to lose the game 31-30. If you were a Cleveland Brown, there was only one reasonable and empirical explanation for allowing a team you’ve been dominating to score two touchdowns in under two minutes.

You’re allowing yourself to take that deep breath you’ve wanted to take all afternoon.

You think you’ve done what you came to do and are now pretty much riding out the remaining minutes and seconds. Maybe you even thought to yourself, “I feel like a good steak tonight…”

Except the job wasn’t over, and at the elite level of performance, even a fractional let-up can allow the other team to shift momentum.

The Arizona Cardinals seemed to be flapping their wings in vain for the first half of their game against the Las Vegas Raiders and went into the locker room at halftime trailing 20-0. In his postgame interview, the Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters he urged his players to “settle in and do what we do.” And that’s what they did. Their second half wasn’t brilliant but it was “effortful” said Kingsbury. “There were a lot of plays we had to make, and we made them,” he added.

One play Las Vegas had to make was a field goal in overtime, which would have won the game. They were within field goal range when they fumbled the ball, giving it to the Cardinals, who didn’t fumble their opportunity, winning 29-23.

It’s easy to empathize with the losing teams. All of us have prepared for something we knew would be difficult – a presentation, a sales call, a board meeting – and experienced the butterflies and poor sleep that come with the pressure. In such cases, it would be easy to breath that sigh of relief when things seemed to go well. But the game isn’t over until the referee blows the whistle. Just as the presentation isn’t over until the client has asked the last question about delivery or the board chair has asked the last question about filling that C-Suite position that’s been open for months.

The problem is that exercising the discipline needed to finish a job and close out the win, however you define “win,” works against human nature, which is designed to seek an escape from pressure or other unpleasantness – and the sooner, the better. But it’s rarely better when we accept the relief sooner.

That’s what LaFleur told reporters he was thinking when he talked to his players at halftime. “Today was such a great lesson for everyone in the league,” he told reporters after the game. “Whether you’re winning or losing, you have to be resilient. The Bears hung in there until the end. It was a hard-fought game. Luckily our defense was able to buckle down, and our offense was able to drive it pretty good.”

A very sportsman-like summary, for sure, from the coach. But luck had very little to do with his success on that day.


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