NFL teams can rescue bad seasons in spoiler role

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(AP) - Their seasons a mess, the Vikings, Steelers and Rams took their spoiler roles seriously.

Good for them.

Too often, when teams are out of the running for the postseason, they pack it in (Redskins, Giants, Raiders) for December, thinking more about vacations than victories. Last week showed that Minnesota, Pittsburgh and St. Louis haven't done any such thing.

"I knew our guys would play hard. I knew that they would give everything they had and the fact that we were playing at home, I felt like that would give us a boost, energize us," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said after his team, minus top running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, stunned NFC East leader Philadelphia. "I don't think you can ever count out our players and we've had some difficult moments this season for sure.

"I think you have to credit the leaders on this football team. We have some strong guys who they prepare, they work hard and they kind of make sure our locker room stays the way it needs, and that's unified and not let it splinter."

They didn't in Minnesota, and on Sunday the Vikings (4-9-1) could put a dent in another division leader's aspirations when they visit Cincinnati.

The Steelers emulated Minnesota last Sunday night with their whipping of the AFC North's top dog, the Bengals. This weekend, like the Vikes, they get another shot to play spoiler, at Green Bay.

Seeing how Mike Tomlin's team responded against a bitter division rival should make Steelers fans proud. Sure, they're used to much more success than that _ three Super Bowl trips in the last decade could, well, spoil them.

"We're just trying to win games and show people that the guys on this team and the coaches, they want to play," veteran safety Ryan Clark said. "They have a lot of fight left in them."

It's not easy to keep that fighting spirit alive in December for players who will be heading home come January. Herm Edwards has been on both sides, coaching playoff-bound teams trying to avoid being upset, and guiding losing clubs when they faced contenders.

Edwards believes it's up to the coaching staff to set the tone, and that means for the entire season, not just the final few weeks. The coaches must put together a strong locker room with players who recognize their jobs always can be on the line, players who remind teammates of that fact whenever necessary.

A few wins at the end of the season also carry a team into the offseason with a far better outlook, maybe even with some momentum.

"It is about preparing every week to win a game," said Edwards, now a commentator for ESPN. "You don't worry about the schedule or how many games you've won or lost."

Edwards thinks contenders are at a disadvantage in many games against spoilers, particularly if the team on the outskirts of the playoffs or completely eliminated is relatively talented. He pointed to San Diego's win over Denver in Week 15.

"It doesn't surprise," said Edwards, who brought the Jets to the playoffs three times and the Chiefs once. "If a coach is with a winning team and it's playoff bound, those are the ones you really get nervous about, playing a team you know will come out loose and really play you hard, especially early in that game. As a coach, you make sure you and the players don't panic and try to win the game in the first quarter and get away from your game plan. That's the worst thing you can do."

Potential spoilers are everywhere this weekend.

Aside from the Vikings at Cincinnati and Steelers at Green Bay, how about the Giants at Detroit and the Falcons at San Francisco? Washington hosts Dallas, Houston is home for Denver, and Buffalo entertains Miami.

Plenty of opportunity for upheaval in the playoff races.

But Edwards thinks the enthusiasm for these games still should be heavily slanted toward the contender.

"When you're trying to get into the playoffs, you almost have to back off the energy they are bringing every day and make them calm down," he said. "They are excited. There's a different air about the whole end of the season when you are going for the playoffs.

"You just want to make sure these guys understand about paying attention to the details, and that we have to win this game because it's this week's game, no matter who it's against."


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