Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano has kept it loose all week.
He’s been cracking jokes, encouraging laughter and trying to put football in perspective. He does not want today’s playoff game to change the routine, so he is imploring the Colts to make this business as usual — even with the Chiefs coming to town for a wild-card game.
“It’s no time to pressure up. It’s no time to get outside of anything you’ve done at this point,” Pagano said. “You come in, you meet, you have a walkthrough, you practice well and then you play well. Don’t do anything different. Just understand what’s at stake. It is one-and-done. That doesn’t mean go play tight and those types of things and put any added pressure on yourself. You do that and you’re not going to play well.”
Pagano has seen what happens when teams play tight. So have Colts fans, more times than they care to count.
It’s not easy making a playoff week seem normal.
There are all sorts of potential distractions — ticket requests, travel plans, holiday celebration, even unforeseen medical emergencies. Last year, just before their wild-card game at Baltimore, Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was hospitalized. Indy managed only three field goals in a 24-9 loss as a bunch of Colts made their postseason debuts; Arians turned out to be OK and wound up getting hired by the Cardinals.
But the Colts’ youngsters learned some key lessons that have helped this time around.
“There can be a little more focus during the week. There can be some more distractions. That’s where you really need to sort of hunker down,” quarterback Andrew Luck said. “As far as playing the game and practice, we’ve gotten to this point doing some things well. Let’s keep doing those.”
Now, it’s the Chiefs’ turn.
Coach Andy Reid and new general manager John Dorsey followed the same plan Pagano and Ryan Grigson used to rebuild the Colts — new coach, new GM, new quarterback, new roster. Kansas City, like the Colts, went from 2-14 to 11-5 and back to the playoffs with nearly two dozen first- or second-year guys.
A few of the playoff veterans now find themselves explaining to teammates what to expect Saturday.
“I know my first time, I acted like a rookie. I was excited and fumbled the ball twice,” AFC rushing champ Jamaal Charles said. “Now I’m going in my second time and seeing other people, becoming a vet, 27 years old, I really want this, I really want to go far, and if I have to put the team on my back, I will.”
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy usually told players something else — most playoff games are lost rather than won and the teams that fare best stick to the plan. Translation: Trying to do too much will only get you and your teammates in trouble.
Many of Dungy’s pupils, including NFL sacks champs Robert Mathis, still abide by that philosophy. Mathis has spent the last two Januarys telling teammates all they really have to do is match their opponents’ intensity, pay attention to the details, do their jobs and trust teammates to do theirs — the same approach Indy has used all season. But when it comes from the mouth of someone who has played in Super Bowls and won one, the words carry more clout.
“You can be too loose to where you’re overconfident, arrogant. But you can be too tight to where you’re wound up and you can’t play football that way,” Mathis said. “You have to have fun. This is a kid’s game so you have to approach it as such. Have fun. Just do what you got here. That’s what I always tell my young guys. Do what got you here and you’ll be all right.”
Exhibit 1 came in the last playoff meeting between these teams.
Back in January 2007, Indy’s heavily maligned run defense faced one of the most feared rushers in football, Larry Johnson. Instead of being run over, Mathis & Co. limited Johnson to 32 yards on 13 carries, won 23-8 and a month later won the Super Bowl in rainy Miami.
The trick is finding the right balance when the stakes are so high.
“Nine years, three postseason appearances. You’re very fortunate when you get here,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “My message to the young guys is you have to take advantage of this. You never know when you’ll get back. It’s not the time to play uptight. It’s the time to go all out.”