Rookies, Young Players Follow Veterans' Lead in Postseason
INDIANAPOLIS – The only difference is all the difference.
Steve Justice, a rookie offensive lineman for the Colts, had heard about how things change at various stages of the NFL season, how the intensity level is different in the regular season, then increases again around this time of year.
Hearing and seeing, he said, were vastly different things.
And this week, he said he has seen it first-hand.
" 'This is like a new season,' is what a lot of guys are saying,'' Justice said as the Colts (12-4) prepared to play the AFC West Champion San Diego Chargers (8-8) in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Cal., Saturday at 8 p.m.
"We're all 0-0 and whoever makes plays wins, so this is like a new season for us."
Such has been the dialogue around the Colts this week.
The Colts, the AFC South champions the last five seasons, won their last nine games this season to secure a seventh consecutive postseason appearance and their sixth consecutive season with 12 or more victories.
The second streak is an NFL record, and players such as wide receiver Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, quarterback Peyton Manning, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Raheem Brock, punter Hunter Smith, center Jeff Saturday, offensive tackle Ryan Diem and long snapper Justin Snow have been a part of each team.
"These guys, they've been to the playoffs every year," running back Chad Simpson, a rookie who signed with the Colts as a free agent shortly after the 2008 NFL Draft, said Tuesday afternoon. "They know what it takes to win a Super Bowl and that's how they go about it, strictly business."
They are postseason-tested veterans with championship credentials, and they have spent part of this week emphasizing a key message to younger players on the roster.
Postseason opunities may be the norm around the Colts.
But that doesn't mean they're to be taken lightly.
"You can see it," Simpson said. "Just in walkthroughs, it was kind of intense. Everybody was focused."
Simpson added, smiling, "I don't want to mess with people's money (postseason shares), so I'm focused myself. But you can definitely feel it."
Said Justice, "In the preseason, those games don't really matter, and all the young guys get to play. The regular season starts, and you see a change there. It goes on through the year, then last week to this week."
But while the intensity level is up, veteran players said this week the approach to the playoffs is a fine line. The intensity, several said, should be raised while not significantly altering an approach that produced regular-season success.
"(Colts Head) Coach (Tony) Dungy really does a good job of that, just trying to let them know that the more normal you can make it the better chance you have to succeed," said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who will start his 15th postseason game Saturday night. "You do hear those things, 'The game's faster, it's more intense.' I think you have to be careful going into the game thinking it's going to be a whole entirely different ballgame.
"For our young players, for (offensive guard) Mike Pollak and some of our first- and second-year guys, the more they can get out there and realize that it still is football – you still have to go and block and tackle and make catches – the better chance you have to succeed.
"I think that's good advice that Coach has given these young guys, and I think that holds pretty true."
Said rookie free agent safety Jamie Silva, "I feel like it's pretty much always business. I feel like we have a good time here, but we know what we have to do and we know we have to get prepared to win every game. Now, it's very apparent that we have to win every game. Everybody's ready to go and nobody came in (this week) not having that attitude. . . .
"Coach Dungy let us know that 20 teams are out. There are only 12 remaining, and after this weekend, it's eight. It's definitely do-or-die and must-win every week. Every day is crucial to prepare and become better."
Colts rookie tight end Jacob Tamme said the importance of balancing intensity and routine became clear early this week.
"Everything's at stake, but at the same time, it's like Coach Dungy said, 'You want to focus on doing a lot of the same things you've been doing and doing them well,''' Tamme, a fourth-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft, said. "The atmosphere is a little bit different, but for the most part, I'm trying to follow these guys' leadership and do my job."
Entering the posteason, the Colts' roster features 15 rookies or first-year veterans. At the beginning of the season, Simpson said Dungy gave those players simple, sage advice that he has held through all season and will hold true in the coming days.
"He said, 'If anything else, follow the vet,''' Simpson said with a smile.
Justice said a rookie who thinks of the NFL postseason as something similar to a college bowl game quickly learns the difference.
"You look at it like, 'This is kind of like a bowl,' but it's totally different," he said. "It's not anything like a bowl. With a bowl, you're kind of having fun. Not that we're not having fun, but it (a bowl) is kind of like a vacation with a game. This is business and if you lose you're done. The season's over.
"You worked so hard to get to this point and to make it here, you don't want to make it so that you mess up and lose your opportunity."
Said second-year safety Melvin Bullitt, "It's a big difference and they know it just by the way guys carry themselves and the way meetings are held. Everything's just magnified a little bit. It's a whole new season and it's really a one-week season. This is business.
"It's 'Win and you're still in,' or, 'One and done,' and you don't want that at all."