Stakes Clear as Colts, Jets Enter AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at Lucas Oil Stadium
INDIANAPOLIS – Robert Mathis wastes few words.
So, when the Colts' three-time Pro Bowl defensive end was asked this week about how pre-game talk and hype affected a post-season game, and how he would describe Colts' 2010 playoff opener Saturday, he said his view on the matter was simple.
The regular season is over, he said.
The post-season is at hand. So, hype? Hyperbole?
Mathis said such things matter little this time of year – not in games of such imance.
"I see it as a playoff game," Mathis said this week as the AFC South Champion Colts (10-6) prepared to play the New York Jets (11-5) in an AFC Wild Card game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Saturday at 8 p.m.
"Win or go home – you call it what you want."
Win or go home . . .
That's post-season reality in the NFL, if the Colts seem familiar with the concept, it's because if they haven't been in that mode for the last month, they've been very, very close.
The Colts, who have made the post-season every season from 2002-10 – tying an NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances – spent many Decembers during that span with their playoff appearance all-but clinched. They won AFC South titles from 2003-07 and 2009, making the post-season as a wild card in 2002 and 2008, and never in any of those seasons did they enter the final game of the regular season without a playoff berth secured.
This regular season was different, dramatically so.
The Colts, after winning a second AFC Championship in four seasons last season, lost two of their first four games, and after improving to 5-2, lost four of five games – including three in succession – to slip to 6-6 and into second-place in early December.
It was just the third time in the nine-year history of the South the Colts had been in second-place in December.
The Colts also entered that month dealing with a slew of injuries. Tight end Dallas Clark, safety Melvin Bullitt and wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez were on injured reserve, and during December, cornerback Jerraud Powers, wide receiver Austin Collie and safety Bob Sanders were put on the season-ending list.
Linebacker Clint Session, running back Joseph Addai and cornerback Kelvin Hayden also missed extensive time with injuries, much of that time coming in December.
"Even though we have some guys back, we still have some key players that are out and won't be able to come back," Addai said. "I think a lot of the young guys stepped up and helped us out."
Those players have done it throughout the season, with young players such as safety Aaron Francisco, rookie linebacker Kavell Conner, tight end Jacob Tamme, wide receiver Blair White and others turning in critical performances throughout the season.
Still, in early December, the Colts were a game behind Jacksonville in the AFC South.
They left the month in first-place, and clinched a seventh division title in eight seasons by beating Tennessee in Tennessee, Jacksonville at home, Oakland in Oakland and Tennessee again – the last time in a 23-20 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium in the regular-season finale.
"We feel fortunate to be playing this week," Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "We don't take it for granted to be in the playoffs. We feel very fortunate. We feel like these last four games have really been like playoff games for us, for the most part.
"If we had lost any of those four we probably would have been out of contention. We have been playing with a sense of urgency, and we'll need to continue that."
Four games – four essentially must-win situations.
Four pressure-filled victories.
"Since I've been here we've always been winning," Addai said. "Me, myself, that's all I've known as far as being a Colts player. I think us going through this season, it kind of brought the team closer, willing to do whatever to get a win, and that's what we've been doing. Now we are at this point. I think it will carry on into the playoffs, doing whatever it takes."
It was, compared to past years, a different Colts season. In 2004-05 and 2007-09, the Colts played their final game of the season – and in some seasons, their final three games – with their playoff positioning decided.
Addai said clinching the division on the regular-season's final weekend "brought us together as a team."
"I don't think we panicked," Addai said. "I won't say that. But we really made it a point to believe that every play counts. I mean every play counts, but we really, really focused in on that, and not even just in the games; walk-throughs, at home, meetings, all of that. I'm not saying we took a different approach, but you just learned something new about the guy beside you. In the playoffs you really need that. It might be a blessing in disguise."
Said Mathis, "Whatever the situation you are in, you just have to deal with it. Last year, we had the luxury of being able to sit out those games, whereas this year we dug ourselves in a hole early on in the year and we had to get ourselves out.
"We couldn't take a loss in December or the season is done, so we are going to take it for what it's worth. We are going to take all the good and eliminate the bad and try to ride the wave."
And while the end of the regular season featured perhaps a different path, the Colts not only enter the playoffs with their longest winning streak of the season, but their second-longest season-ending winning streak of the last decade. In 2008, the Colts won their final eight games of the season.
Still, Mathis said whatever the season-ending scenario, it matters little once the regular season actually ends. Because, Mathis said, the post-season is the post-season however a team makes it there, and whatever is said during the week.
"It is the exact same," Mathis said. "You just have to win because we don't want our season to end. We didn't like the way our season ended last year, so we want to end it on a high note."
Said safety Antoine Bethea, "Post-season, you know you lose and you go home. Obviously at this point everybody has the same goal, trying to get to (Dallas) Texas (site of the Super Bowl). At this point, everybody knows there's going to be more at stake. We've been here a lot the past couple of years.
"So walking around here, everybody knows what we need to do to get to that point. But like I said, it's a lot at stake. You lose, you go home. You win, you keep going.
"We're just trying to get this win so we can be here next week as well."