Meaningful December Games About Pressure, Fun for Colts
INDIANAPOLIS – Whatever you call it, it doesn't bother Dwight Freeney.
And he says the same is true of the rest of the Colts.
Freeney said while a case could be made that the Colts have faced each in recent weeks, he said a stronger case could be made that not only is what the Colts are facing expected in the NFL, they've been through it before.
The Colts must win to make the playoffs. That makes the games crucial.
So what? Freeney said this week.
"Everybody likes to say, 'Pressure, and all that,' Freeney said as the AFC South-leading Colts (8-6) prepared to play the Oakland Raiders (7-7) at Oakland Coliseum Sunday at 4:05 p.m.
"As a player in this league, especially around here, pressure has always been what it's been."
The Colts, who have won the AFC South six of the past seven seasons, again are in range of a division title. A victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium this past Sunday moved them into a first-place tie with Jacksonville, but the Colts have the tiebreaker advantage.
If the teams each finish 10-6, the Colts will win the division because they will have a better record than the Jaguars against common opponents.
To ensure that happens, the Colts must win their final two games, which means they could face must-win scenarios in each of their final two games. For the Colts, that essentially has been the case since they lost a 38-35 overtime game to the Dallas Cowboys to slip to 6-6.
They needed to beat the Tennessee Titans the following Thursday. They did.
And this past Sunday, they needed to beat a Jaguars team that had won five of six games entering the match-up.
They did, which set up Sunday's game against the Raiders, who have won five of their last eight games to move to 7-7 and remain in the playoff chase. The Raiders have won two of three games, with the only loss in that span coming two weeks ago at Jacksonville, 38-21, a game in which Oakland led by 10 points in the second half.
"They are playing with a lot of momentum," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "The Jacksonville game easily could have gone their way. They had a really convincing win this past Sunday over Denver. They are playing at home. They are right in the thick of the playoff chase, as are we, so I know it's going to be a tough ballgame."
The Raiders, who last made the playoffs in 2002 – when they represented the AFC in the Super Bowl – are still in contention for a post-season berth following a 39-23 victory over Denver this past Sunday.
The Raiders must beat the Colts Sunday and have AFC West-leading Kansas City lose at home Sunday to Tennessee. They also need San Diego to lose either at Cincinnati or Denver in one of the next two games.
Oakland could then win the AFC West by winning the season finale at Kansas City.
"The whole atmosphere is different," Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who joined the Raiders in 2003, told reers this week. "In December the weather is pretty gloomy and that makes our mood gloomy - we're not winning and all that stuff. We're offsetting the weather now. Everybody's happy. Everybody's excited and we have something to play for. It's great for us. It's great for the mood of the team."
Said Raiders coach Tom Cable, "It's a lot more fun. Football is football. I love football. I love coaching. That part of it is never an issue for me. It's just more exciting. You get up and come to work and you're excited about getting into a new plan."
The Colts and Raiders haven't played since 2007, when the Colts won in mid-December in Oakland, 21-14, to clinch the sixth of their NFL-high eight consecutive postseason appearances. And whereas the Colts' other three opponents throughout the final month of the season are division opponents, Manning said playing an opponent outside the division presents a different challenge.
"It's a lot of film," Manning said. "You've got 14 games that you have to watch (and) cover yourself with from a study standpoint and try to get to know the people that you are playing against, as well as the schemes. So, it's definitely more challenging than it is when you're playing a division game or Tennessee next week.
"We'll only have played two games since the last time we played them. So it's a great challenge from a preparation standpoint, trying to get as familiar as you can with these guys before the game on Sunday."
The Colts can tie the NFL record for consecutive post-season appearances with victories in their final two games. But while the Colts have been in the post-season often, middle linebacker Gary Brackett said the urgency to return shouldn't obscure that these sorts of games – meaningful, late-season games with season goals at stake – are better than the alternative.
"This is fun," Brackett said. "Obviously, you have to play your best football, and that's what you want to do. This is a fun game – the big games, the meaningful games.
"You want to go out there and play your best football."
And while the Colts during that streak never have had to win so many consecutive season-ending games to make the post-season, Freeney said that hardly means they have made it through the stretch without winning big, pressurized games.
"It's nothing new for us," Freeney said. "There's pressure in December, January, February. What more pressure is there than a playoff game to get in a Super Bowl? What more pressure is there than the Super Bowl? We've accomplished the ultimate goal, and most teams haven't.
"We've got a lot of guys in this locker room who have been through it. You just go out and do your job, and keep doing what you're doing. You understand that pressure is just built in. It is what it is."