Colts Play Host to New York Jets in AFC Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium
INDIANAPOLIS – Peyton Manning has been here before – twice, in fact.
Manning, in his 12th season as the Colts' quarterback, this week is preparing for his third appearance in the AFC Championship Game, and based on that experience he said there are a couple of truisms.
One, is this an opunity to be seized.
But Manning said that perhaps the most important aspect for the Colts as they prepare to play in their fourth AFC Championship Game of the Indianapolis era is just that: the preparation that must take place before playing a game with a spot in the Super Bowl at stake.
"I don't know if anything feels different," Manning said Wednesday afternoon as the AFC South Champion Colts (15-2) prepared to play the Wild Card New York Jets (11-7) in the AFC Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 3 p.m.
"It's an exciting week. I think the focus sitting here on Wednesday is we have to have a good week of preparation."
The Colts, a playoff team an NFL-best eight consecutive seasons, have won six of the past seven AFC titles, advancing to the AFC Championship Game following the 2003 and 2006 seasons. They beat New England, 38-34, in the AFC title game following the 2006 season, beating the Chicago Bears two weeks later in Super Bowl XLI.
That's extensive playoff experience, more than any team left in the postseason and substantially more than this week's opponent, but if the Jets are comparatively new to the postseason, that doesn't mean they lack for confidence.
The Jets, including a 29-15 victory over the Colts on December 27, have won their last four games, including road post-season victories first over the Cincinnati Bengals, 24-14, in an AFC Wild Card game, and next over the San Diego Chargers, 17-14, in an AFC Divisional Playoff game last Sunday.
The Jets last made the AFC Championship game in 1998, and last won two games in one post-season in 1982, but they are the NFL's number one run offense and number one defense, and are playing well enough that Head Coach Rex Ryan told reporters this week he will be "shocked" if the Jets don't play in the Super Bowl.
That, Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said, doesn't bother the Colts.
Because the way Freeney sees it, that's what a coach and team one game from the Super Bowl should think and say.
"I understand it," said Freeney, who made his fifth Pro Bowl this season and his second in two seasons. "They have to do what they have to do. I would be surprised if he didn't say, 'I would be shocked.' That's the way it is. We'd be shocked if we don't win. That's the way we're supposed to think.
"The AFC Championship Game already speaks for itself, one game to go the Super Bowl."
Said Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett, "It is what it is. "That's their mantra. They get it from their coach. That's his MO. But I'd be confident, too, if I'd won two road games. But every football team has a little cockiness in them."
What Freeney and the Colts said won't matter much is the first meeting with the Jets, a game in which the Colts led 15-10 late in the third quarter before removing front-line starters such as Manning, tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Reggie Wayne. The Colts also held several injured starters out of that game, including defensive end Robert Mathis, linebacker Clint Session, cornerback Jerraud Powers and wide receiver Pierre Garcon.
The Jets rushed for 111 yards in the fourth quarter, forcing two turnovers and pulling away to give the Colts their first loss of the season.
"The score was definitely pretty much an even score," Freeney said. "I guess that is somewhat accurate. Obviously, the starters didn't finish the game. They ended up winning the game, and that was good for them. That helped them get into the playoffs, but this is a new game.
"This is the AFC Championship Game. Everything that happened in Week 16 is kind of irrelevant now."
Manning said while he watched the Jets' victory over the Chargers early Sunday evening, his time spent since has not been about watching sound bites and news coverage.
"I don't follow it at all, to tell you the truth," Manning said. "As soon as the game was over, I started beginning my preparation from an Xs and Os standpoint on this team. That's where I think the game is going to be played and decided, on the field. That's where our focus is, and that's where my focus is. . . .
"The focus this week is on preparation. We've got to have a good week of preparation. I thought we had a good week last week. Against these guys, especially, the more familiar you are with them, the better chance it gives you. It doesn't guarantee anything; it does give you a better chance.
"That's the focus right now: trying to get prepared mentally and physically to play a good game."
Manning, playing in his 10th postseason, is 8-8 in the playoffs and 1-1 in the AFC Championship Game. He has started more playoff games than anyone on the Colts' roster. Even for teams that contend each season, title-game opportunities are rare, and Manning said such moments must be seized.
"That's what we want to do," Manning said. "I think everybody realizes the opportunity and what's at stake. That's why I think everybody wants to have a good week of preparation, to put ourselves in the best position on Sunday."