I was blessed to make the playoffs five out of my seven years in the NFL and I can tell you that with six games in the books this season, at least half of the teams in the league still believe they have a shot at getting there.
Teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears, who have gotten off to good starts, of course strongly believe they will make it to the playoffs this season. Many other teams that have been up and down, but are talented, also believe they have a shot too. The key to any of them being right is how they approach the rest of the season.
Because the Falcons are the only remaining undefeated team, they have to know and expect that they are going to get the best effort of every team left on their schedule. They are now the hunted, with a big bulls eye on their backs, and even the bad teams will want a win against them to have something to hang their hat on. That's also true of the teams with one loss as well. No matter what the opponent's record is when they face them, they are going to bring it that day.
For that reason, the current front runners can't take anyone lightly. No one is going to lay down just because they have a good record. If any of those front running teams start reading their own press clippings, they may find themselves in a slump before you know it. They have to continue to do all the little things that helped them get to the position that they are in and maintain their intensity every single week. Those teams should also expect a bunch of trick plays because if a team doesn't think they can measure up with them using only conventional stuff, then they are definitely going to empty out the kitchen sink to try to get a win.
On the other hand the teams who are trying to climb back into contention are going to have to do what ever they have been doing better. The teams that will eventually rise back up are usually those teams that have players that hold each other accountable. It's one thing for a coach to get on a guy for continuing to make the same mistakes. It's different when his teammates let him know that they won't stand for him continuing to hurt the team because he isn't doing his job, is being undisciplined or both.
My old defensive line coach, Rod Marinelli, used to tell us that we weren't a family, but instead a brotherhood, and it's true. In a family, if somebody falls behind, you wait for them to catch up, even if it puts everyone else in jeopardy. In a brotherhood, the strong keep marching on when the weak fall behind for the betterment of the whole. It doesn't matter who the weak links are; those teams will either have to get those guys playing better or find better players if they want to make the playoffs. Peer pressure can be a strong motivator if the leadership is strong inside of the locker room.
These teams have to start taking each game as its own playoff game also. If you think of the situation as 10 more games, then it's easier to accept a loss here or there. If you think of each game as a win-or-go-home proposition, however, then everyone is more likely to take every game a little more seriously.
The biggest key for all of the teams looking to make a playoff run is to not take anything for granted. From the last guy on the roster to the superstar quarterback, everyone has to buy in and work their tails off every week. Whether it be in the weight room or the film room or the class room, now is not the time to relax in their preparation. Also, some guys are likely going to get hurt because that is the nature of football, so everyone has to be ready to do their part.
Ultimately, every team wants to make it to the playoffs no matter what record got them there. That's because once you're in, anything can happen, as we have seen over the years. It's never going to be easy to get there, however. There are still 11 weeks left, which is quite a long time, so there's still no telling how it all will play out.
The teams that are still standing by the end of the season will be the ones that continued pushing forward, got better and refused to let outside influences affect their play. If any team doesn't do all three of those things the rest of the way, they will likely be on the outside looking in instead.