Hope for the Arizona Cardinals came on a Friday night in early December, when during a team meeting linebacker John Abraham stood up and spoke to his teammates. It was an impassioned speech about how he has all the statistics and money and other things football has given him. But what he wants most now, Abraham explained, was another trip to the playoffs.
We can do it this year, was Abraham's message. I don't care about next year. Or the year after. We have a chance now.
"You could hear a pin drop in the room," Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell told Bleacher Report. "He crystallized it for us. We have a chance now. We have hope."
Two days later, the Cardinals destroyed the St. Louis Rams, 30-10.
Hope for the San Diego Chargers came in the form of a game plan and ESPN talking heads.
On Thursday, before San Diego played at Denver, a game few thought the Chargers would win, fullback Le'Ron McClain was scanning the television channels, and ended up viewing one. "I was watching ESPN the whole day," he told Bleacher Report. "Everything was about Peyton and not our quarterback. Our team was an afterthought."
"Our plan," McClain said, "was to keep Peyton Manning on the sideline. We felt like we could do it. We had belief."
At this time of the year, as the regular season ends and teams fight and claw for playoff spots, hope is the greatest propellant in all of the league.
You are not the only ones who stare at the playoff standings and the 500 cabillion different postseason scenarios. Coaches do. Players do. The Chargers and Cardinals are like many others teams currently on the outside looking in. They watch and read everything. They don't want to admit it, but they do.
"The way I look at it," McClain said, "is that from now on, every game is a playoff game for us. Every now and then I do look to see what we need to do to get in—but overall, I think of it as, just keep winning and see how things work out."
Said Campbell, "It's possible we could go 11-5 and miss out. That's how tight things are for us. But we believe in ourselves and in this team."
Campbell is having his usual solid season, and the Arizona defense remains one of the great hidden gems in the NFL. Entering Sunday's game, the Cardinals are top five in yards allowed and takeaways. They are seventh in sacks and scoring.
In many ways, hope is like star drive. It can provide great power and energy. The Chargers and Cardinals are both feeling its effects now.
In other ways, hope is a scam. In the AFC alone, there are technically nine teams alive for the playoffs. Technically. But does anyone really believe that 4-9 Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville or Oakland are going to make the postseason?
Will the Cardinals or Chargers make the playoffs?
The Chargers at 7-7 are one of the teams that have a realistic chance. Not a great chance but a realistic one.
The NFC is different. The Cardinals (8-5), Bears (7-6), Cowboys (7-6), and Packers (6-6-1) all have decent shots. Arizona plays in the brutal NFC West, but if the Cards win their final three games against Tennessee, Seattle and San Francisco, they have a chance. And that's where hope comes in again.
This week begins an intense time in the sport. There's not much like it. The standings become an obsession. Everyone is doing calculus to see where their playoff chances stand. There is desperation, fear, encouragement, and most of all, hope.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.