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Motivation Or Excuse: Patriots, Saints, And How The Great Ones Respond To Adversity

It’s only been a couple of days since the nation got two of the best Conference Championship games in NFL history, and some wounds are still fresh. But there’s not been a better sports weekend that I can remember to talk about one of the most elusive habits of Greatness:

Using adversity to fuel your competitive fire.

For context, I want to go back to the New England Patriots in the aftermath of the Divisional Playoff round. After waxing the LA Chargers and securing yet another trip to the AFC title game, Tom Brady greeted the post-game scrum with the immortal words: “I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games. So we’ll see. It’ll be fun.”

While many sportswriters took Brady to task for assuming the role of underdog, I personally loved it because it was a perfect example of Greatness in action. As I’ve studied Greatness, one of the things I’ve seen the Great Ones do—from Brady to Jordan to Manning—is turn adversity into fuel.

I recently heard Peyton Manning say something quite interesting on this subject. When someone asked him about how athletes respond to “bulletin board” material, Manning replied, “Sometimes, if the opponent didn’t say anything, we made it up just so we’d have someone to prove wrong!”

That’s such an insightful nugget into the mind of Greatness. The Great Ones seek out any mental edge they can find, a chip to shoulder, even if they’ve long since proved the slight to be unreal.

In the case of the Patriots, their perceived slight drove them to heightened preparation in the week leading up to their match-up with the Chiefs. While there was a lot of talk about Kansas City’s young phenom (and likely NFL MVP) Patrick Mahomes, Brady and crew quietly went about their work.

And the results were obvious in the first half on Sunday. Not only did the Patriots jump out to an early lead, they did so in a dominant fashion, eating up the clock with a ball-control offense that kept Mahomes and the talented Chiefs offense on the sidelines for over 20 minutes. Even after the Chiefs came back to tie the game, it wasn’t hard to imagine New England would somehow find a way to win.

When Rex Burkhead punched the ball into the end zone in overtime to secure the win, the proof was in the pudding.

Adversity fuels. Doubt drives.

This week, we’ve seen the opposite end of the spectrum in the wake of the NFC title game, a game that will be remembered for what didn’t happen more than what did.

In case you’ve missed it (though I don’t see how you could), the Saints were on the losing end of one of the worst non-calls in playoff history, an absolute head-scratcher of refereeing incompetence.

With the Saints driving for a potential go-ahead touchdown, the Rams Nickell Robey-Coleman smashed into the Saints’ Tommylee Lewis in what was an obvious pass interference.

Only, the refs didn’t call it.

As the football-loving Saints nation watched again and again on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome screens, the refs reset the ball for the Saints, and New Orleans not only had to settle for a field goal, they left enough time on the clock for the Rams to drive for a tying field goal.

Overtime—and the Rams ended up winning on a 57-yard Greg Zuerlein kick.

The reaction on social media was immediate. The refs were called everything under the sun. Saints fans bombarded the NFL with angry messages.

Head coach Sean Payton told the press after the game that the refs admitted that they blew the call.

“Reffing Unbelievable” read the headline of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Saints owner Gayle Benson issued a statement bemoaning the call and how it “unfairly deprived” the team of a deserved trip to the Super Bowl.

Did the Saints get jobbed? No question. But sometimes that’s the way the game goes, and we can use that adversity to either excuse our losses or fuel our victories. That’s what separates the Great Ones from the rest of us—they know how to place events into a helpful context, to turn disappointment into determination.

What about you? Do you let a setback fan your flame of Greatness, or do you let it douse your drive?

Champions know that failure isn’t fatal, that bad luck isn’t destiny. Next year, I imagine New Orleans might be the team to beat in the NFC. That’s because, like the Patriots, the Saints will likely shoulder their grudge and use it as fuel.

The Great Ones usually do.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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