Is playoff defeat a necessary evil?

Peyton Manning

There is one NFL player who speaks for many when he talks about the notion that a player or a team can learn something by losing in the playoffs. The mere thought prompted running back Willis McGahee to do a double take.

"Did I learn anything from losing a playoff game?" the veteran  Cleveland Browns running back asked rhetorically. "I learned not to lose in the playoffs."

Flippant? Maybe, but accurate for many. McGahee said he still thinks how close the Baltimore Ravens team he played for came to beating the  Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 AFC Championship Game. And he said he still has not gotten over it five years later.

That is life in the NFL playoffs, where only one team and one quarterback and one coach will come out unscathed. But the perception of many will be molded and re-molded based on the way the postseason plays out.

"You make your money in the regular season," said John Elway, the Denver Broncos' vice president of football operations. "You make your legacy in the playoffs."

So it will be this postseason for Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, who all seek their first postseason victory. And for Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson as they try to build on their wins last season. And for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who haven't won the Super Bowl since the 2004 and 2006 seasons, respectively.

But to most players and coaches, playoff failure is not a precursor to success. It's merely a loss in the biggest game of the season.

Elway understands that reality as well as anyone. For years, he was labeled as the guy who couldn't win the big game. But when the Broncos gave him a running game with  Terrell Davis, his fortunes changed and he won two championships. Losing didn't prompt the improvement; fortifying the team did.

"It should be great incentive," Elway said of playoff defeat. "But you have to learn from it and really look at yourself. You can't be afraid or unwilling to really look at yourself."

A loss in the playoffs can indeed provide incentive. Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys were blown out by the  Detroit Lions in the 1991 postseason, the first playoff appearance of the Troy Aikman- Emmitt Smith- Michael Irvin era. Fueled by their simmering anger at the loss, the Cowboys won the next two and three of the next four Super Bowls.

To say that success was spurred by one defeat, however, diminishes the talent, will and heart on those Cowboys teams. Still, if there is one thing that comes from a playoff loss, it's the experience a player gains -- provided he uses it the right way.

That singular point of emphasis is stressed by longtime Penn State sports psychologist David Yukelson.

"Learning is what competition is about," said Yukelson, a past president and fellow in the Association of Applied Sports Psychology. "Fans are about wins and losses, and I get it. But really being in that situation gives you the experience of knowing what you need to do the next time. The speed of the game, how to play against an opponent, the weather, how to handle pressure. By being in that experience you can use what you learned -- if you're motivated the right way."

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