Indy needs playoff newcomers to get past Ravens
The playoffs can't start soon enough for Donnie Avery.
Five years after being the first receiver taken in the 2008 NFL draft, he will finally make his postseason debut at Baltimore.
It's about time.
''It's great, it's like starting the season all over again,'' the Colts receiver said Friday with a smile. ''It's got my juices flowing again.''
The veterans who have been there before will explain this is the way the playoffs are - exciting and nerve-racking all the same time.
And this week, at least, Avery isn't the only one in the Colts' locker room going through this experience for the first time. Of the 53 players on this year's roster, 28 have never played in an NFL playoff game.
Perhaps that should be expected from a team that has relied on rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, piled up more combined rushing and receiving yards by rookies than any team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger and endured the most thorough housecleaning project of any team in the league after last years' 2-14 debacle. More than a half-dozen key players from the Colts' 2009 Super Bowl team, including Peyton Manning, were let go.
But the truth is only nine rookies are on that first-timer list as the surprising Colts (11-5) visit AFC North champion Baltimore (10-6) in Sunday's wild-card round game.
The other names include linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who had a team-high 203 tackles after arriving from Canada; Cassius Vaughn, who spent the last two seasons in Denver but didn't get to play in either of the Broncos' postseason games last year; and cornerback Vontae Davis, the reigning AFC defensive player of the week who spent his first three years in Miami.
''It's a special moment. I've never been to the playoffs being in Miami. My brother, Vernon Davis of San Francisco, he went to this first playoffs last year. He said it's a great feeling, a great experience,'' Vontae Davis said. ''I asked him for any tips and he just said `play harder.'''
If Davis or the others have additional questions, they won't have to look too far.
Outside linebackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, safety Antoine Bethea, kicker Adam Vinatieri and receiver Reggie Wayne all own Super Bowl rings. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and backup running back Mewelde Moore have rings, too. Coach Chuck Pagano and most of those ex-Ravens he brought along have been to the playoffs multiple times as well, and their advice is simple.
''It's another week, we know the stakes are higher,'' Pagano said. ''We know the energy is higher but don't get caught up in all that stuff. Do what you've been doing.''
What the Colts have done best during this remarkable season is find ways to win.
Behind Luck, they have a league-high nine wins in one-possession games. Luck also tied the NFL record by directing seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, and even when the No. 1 overall draft pick hasn't played his best, they've still come up with big plays - Wayne's stretching score to beat Green Bay, Vick Ballard's twisting dive to beat Tennessee, Deji Karim's 101-yard kickoff return to flip last Sunday's game against Houston.
The Colts don't want to change that part of it now.
''I think we've done a lot to get to this point, so I don't think you need to wholesale change things,'' Luck said. ''Obviously, intensity is going to ratchet up, things are going to kick up a notch but trust in the same preparation, in the same process and hopefully that'll pay dividends.''
That won't be the only reward.
Wayne acknowledged Friday he has talked to the playoff newbies about everything from the Colts midnight move to the reaction they can expect when they return to their former hometown to the need to avoid throwing at 2004 defensive player of the year Ed Reed.
It was something else that really go the players attention, though.
''We tell them the more you play in the playoffs, the more checks you get. You see guys' eyes light up,'' Wayne said. ''They say, `Really, there's more money?' The guys I think are very excited. I don't think it will be too big for them, it hasn't been all year.''
Certainly not for Luck, who has been breaking league and franchise records all season.
He heads into this weekend carrying a streak of 105 consecutive passes without an interception, his longest all season. And though things have traditionally not gone well for rookies in the playoffs, Luck is confident his big-game experience at Stanford and his unflappable approach will work in his favor Sunday.
Joe Flacco, who has made the playoffs in all five of his NFL seasons agrees.
''My advice would be, go about your business as you always would on a normal week. It's obviously gotten you to the point that you're in the playoffs and playing to get to another week,'' the Ravens quarterback said. ''If it got you that far, then you're obviously doing something right so you should try to continue that. You shouldn't try anything crazy just because it's playoff time.''
Instead, the Colts intend to follow the same tack they've taken all season and not worry about all those other things that come into play when you're making a playoff debut.
''Sometimes, I think it's better not to know,'' said backup quarterback Drew Stanton, a six-year veteran who has not taken a snap in the postseason but did play in three games on Detroit's 0-16 team. ''I think it (the playoffs) have been kind of infectious around here, there's kind of an obligation to this team and this city to put your best foot forward. That's what we want to do.''
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