INDIANAPOLIS –On Thursday after his team finished its last practice for Saturday's Wild Card game with Kansas City, Chuck Pagano was asked to remember the message he gave his team in training camp.
A coach who forges tight bonds with his staff and players based on relationships and trust remembered immediately.
"One shot. We're not guaranteed anything," said Pagano. "All we were guaranteed was the 2013 season. If we played well enough to get in the post-season, that was all we were guaranteed.
"We're not guaranteed tomorrow, next year. Let's pour everything we have into this season. It's like this game, there is no tomorrow. We will not leave anything on the field."
Pagano saw his team re-emerge after a six-game rough patch starting at mid-season. Indianapolis won its last three games to finish 11-5, out-scoring Houston, Kansas City and Jacksonville by a combined 78-20.
Indianapolis yielded only one run and two receptions exceeding 30 yards in that span. After struggling at times, the defense allowed nine third-down conversions in 37 attempts, while rolling up 12 sacks and seven takeaways.
"When you look at rush defense (101.3 avg.), third downs, turnover margin, they've done a great job," said Pagano. "They're gaining confidence the way they've played. Bottom line, (the) biggest tale is points given up. It's a great time to be playing well."
Added to the positive vibe over the last three games was preparation this week as Indianapolis aims to move past the round where last season ended.
The team is loose, but professional. It is concerned about its own execution.
"We understand the magnitude of this game. To get pressured-up, tightened-up at this point just because it's the playoffs – you lose, you go home – we're worried about us," said Pagano. "We're worried about the process, preparation, practice.
"Focus was good. Attention to detail was heightened. Guys are excited to be in the tournament. I like where they're at that way."
The training camp message served well over 17 regular-season weeks. More than 500 games were played to reduce the playoff field to 12 participants.
The number shrinks to eight by Sunday evening. It is the time of year that excites a 30-year coaching veteran like Pagano.
"The greatest thing about this whole deal is there's going to be a ball kicked off at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon," said Pagano. "Two teams are going to go after it. Two teams are chasing the same thing. They got the same goals that we have."
MATHIS HONORED – Robert Mathis has been named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for December, marking the fourth time Mathis has earned the honor and the second time this season (October).
Mathis had 19 tackles, five sacks and four forced fumbles as the Colts went 4-1. Against Tennessee (12/1) he set a franchise record for most games with a sack (82). Against Houston (12/15), he set the franchise career and seasonal records. Last Sunday he reached 19.5 seasonal sacks to win the NFL title, the second Colt ever to gain the honor. His sack total (111) ranks 20th in history, fifth among active players, and he owns the NFL record with 43 strip-sacks.
"I'd be shocked if he didn't receive that award (Defensive Player of the Year)," said Pagano. "Does he care? If you know Robert, he wants to win this game and be in New York in February. That's his number one goal and only goal."
Mathis has won the Deacon Jones Award for leading the league in sacks. The award was created this year to honor Jones' legacy. Jones died last June, and Mathis will be honored as part of the NFL's awards show on February 1.
"Deacon Jones is the creator of the sack. To win the first award in his honor is an honor," said Mathis. "I'm very proud to win it. I thank my teammates, mainly the d-line, who were very instrumental in helping me get to the quarterback. It's a unit award, more so than an individual award."
PRACTICE REPORT – Did not participate: DT-Fili Moala (knee); Full: NT-Aubrayo Franklin (knee), WR-Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring), OG-Mike McGlynn (elbow), S-Sergio Brown (groin), DE-Cory Redding (shoulder), LB-Bjoern Werner (ankle), DT-Ricky Jean Francois (foot), DB-Darius Butler (quad), CB-Greg Toler (groin), CB-Vontae Davis (groin), LB-Robert Mathis (rest).