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Regular-season winners often struggle in NFL playoffs

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Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley is tackled by Browns free safety Eric Hagg (27) and middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (52) in the first quarter Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, in Denver. (AP)
By The Associated Press
Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 8:14 p.m.

The Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, who tied for the league's best record at 13-3, are well aware of one of the NFL's biggest truisms: more often than not, the regular season is for suckers.

Over the past decade, just two of the 13 teams that had the best regular-season record — or tied for the best mark — went on to win the Super Bowl: the 2002 Buccaneers and the '03 Patriots.

The past eight teams to enter the playoffs with the best record bowed out before they could put their fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy and revel in a rain of confetti.

The Broncos and Falcons are promising to practice like champions this week and not allow rest and relaxation to turn into rust and ruin.

In the past seven seasons, three No. 6 seeds and a No. 4 seed ended up winning it all, giving hope to the likes of the Ravens, Redskins, Bengals and Vikings in this year's playoff pool.

A year ago, the Green Bay Packers rested their regulars in the season finale, and they lost their edge, becoming the first 15-1 team to lose its first playoff game — to a New York Giants team that was 7-7 in mid-December and went on to win it all.

“That's kind of what it was for us when I was in Indy,” Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley said of the 2005 Colts, who went 14-2 but lost to the Steelers in the divisional round. “We kind of rested the last week; then we had a bye. It's too much. So I like just grinding every week, just playing football.”

That's exactly what Peyton Manning's new team did, securing the AFC's top seed Sunday with its 11th straight win.

Along with the Falcons, Patriots and 49ers, the Broncos get a break this week, one that can prove a pitfall as much as a profit.

“We've just got to practice like we're playing this week,” Denver receiver Eric Decker said.

While the Broncos stormed into the playoffs, the Falcons, who already had the NFC's top seed secured, didn't gain any momentum Sunday, losing to Tampa Bay.

“Before this game was played, we were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. At the end of the game, nothing has changed,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez reasoned. “We're a very good team; we'll just use this as a wake-up call.”

Added another Atlanta veteran, Asante Samuel: “We're going to practice like champs. And we're going to play like champs from now on.”

So will the Broncos.

Coach John Fox is using the bye week to stay sharp, calling for short, crisp practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and a mandatory weightlifting session Saturday, mainly to keep the team “focused, not concerned with flights to other states and those type of things, especially close states.”

It's not just the NFL where the season's best team usually falters in the playoffs.

In the past 10 seasons, only two teams in each of the other major pro sports leagues parlayed the best regular-season record into a title, according to STATS, LLC. They were: the 2007 Red Sox and the '09 Yankees, the 2002-03 Spurs and the '07-08 Celtics and the Red Wings in 2001-02 and '07-08.

Since the first Super Bowl, the team with the best regular-season record has won just 21 of 46 titles (46 percent), which is more than in the NHL (42 percent), NBA (41 percent) and MLB (28 percent), according to STATS.

“Everyone wants to have the best record, win the division and play at home for the playoffs, but in my opinion, the team that is playing the best has the best opportunity,” former MVP and Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner said. “This game is always about confidence and momentum.”

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