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Fight to the finish

Scott A. Miller/US Presswire

This column appears in the Jan. 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

As the once-undefeated Giants and Broncos proved by missing the playoffs
this season, there are no sure things in the NFL. Except for maybe one: the goal-line stand. As the postseason hurtles toward the championship round, there will be at least one moment when the game of football -- a game usually
dictated by schemes, gimmicks and endless hours of preparation -- is reduced to
its simplest form. The offense tries to create space, to maneuver, to inch
forward, to score. The defense tries to take away that oh-so-precious space
while backed up against (and sometimes standing in) its own house.

So what happens when oversize, freakishly
athletic men lock horns with little room to spare? A whole lot more than meets the eye. We break it down
for you here, with the help of players and coaches on both sides of the ball.

STEP ONE: DEVISE A STRATEGY

It's goal-to-go at the 5, so what's a coach to do? Well, if his defense is
trying to stand its ground, the answer is pretty simple: not much. Unless
faced with a multiple-receiver formation favored by pass-happy squads like
the Patriots and Colts, most teams typically rely on only two fronts -- either
a six-man line with two linebackers or a five-man line with three
linebackers. Coverages are just as basic, with man-to-man or an eight-man
zone. A defensive coordinator who's feeling
particularly creative might call a soft Cover-2 that turns into man coverage once the receivers break
into their routes. And if a pass seems
likely, watch out for a big-time
blitz. But the truth is, the defense really can't do a whole lot until the
offense makes its move at the snap.
"It is a little bit of a chess game
when you're in goal-line," says Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie
Frazier. "We have only a couple of plays we call down there. Frankly, you
are just trying to anticipate what the offense is going to do."

Then again, the offense has fewer weapons
too when it's spitting distance from the goal line (five yards or closer). In fact, coordinators who have
been known to draw from playbooks at least 800 pages long generally run only
20 or so plays on goal-to-go inside the 10-yard line, and even fewer inside
the 5. As on any other drive, the offense tries to run a play based on its
field position (however confined), personnel and the aggressiveness of the
defense it's facing. At least, that's the plan before first and second
downs. "Beyond those downs, the defense has an
advantage," says Bengals
offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "They expect you to throw, so they
drop eight men into coverage, which makes it tough to pass."