INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – As Frank Reich was sitting idly Monday evening – well, as idly as a coach can sit whose team has its biggest game of the season in five days – his mind drifted toward covering every conceivable aspect of that biggest game of the season.
He’s in his first season as a head coach, but hardly a novice when it comes to playoff football and everything that entails. His NFL resume spans a quarter century and includes 26 postseason appearances as player and coach. Remember the biggest comeback in playoff history? Or being an integral part of the Philadelphia Eagles’ world championship 11 months ago?
Reich’s team, though, is rife with newbies. His 53-man roster includes only four players who have appeared in a playoff game with the Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Anthony Castonzo and Adam Vinatieri – and 11 others who can lean on postseason experience with other teams.
How to best deliver the message that as gargantuan as Saturday’s first-round AFC playoff game with the Texans at Houston’s NRG Stadium is, it’s really just the next game on the docket?
Reich turned to the true voice of experience: Vinatieri.
“I texted Vinny (Monday) night,’’ he said. “I was sitting around thinking about it, ‘How many playoff games has he played in?’’’
That would be 30, second to Tom Brady’s 37 and one more than Jerry Rice. Vinatieri, one of only four players in NFL history to play at age 46, has reached the playoffs with the New England Patriots and Colts in 15 of his 23 seasons.
“I said, ‘Alright Vinny, tell me, what have you learned?’’’ Reich said. “The message he sent me I thought was vintage.
“We shared that with the team (Tuesday) morning and I had Vinny share a few extra thoughts on that. Lot of wisdom in what he was saying.’’
The gist of Vinatieri’s message?
Don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed by the obvious importance of the moment.
Treat it as you have the previous 16 games.
Just continue to do what you’ve done.
Prepare during the week.
Execute on Saturday.
“It’s not rocket science,’’ Vinatieri said. “It’s still a football game. Inevitably playoff games are lost more often than they are won because the stage gets too big. Plays escalate because of the pressure.’’
The essence of his discussion with the team, he added, was “just make sure we do the right stuff. It’s ‘Just don’t let it get bigger than it is. It’s a football game. It’s the Houston Texans we’re playing.’
“Obviously the implications escalate when it’s a playoff game and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, it’s a football game. It’s who plays the best and who executes the best and prepares the most, and trust your ability and do all the right stuff.
“This is the good stuff. It’s a privilege to be in the playoffs.’’
Again, his is the voice of rare experience. Vinatieri has appeared in five Super Bowls and was on the Colts’ active roster but injured in Super Bowl XLIV for a sixth trip. He has four world championship rings, including two he delivered with game-winning field goals in the closing seconds.
Linebacker Darius Leonard is one of 11 rookies about to go where they’ve never been. He leaned into everything the team’s eldest statesman had to say.
“My biggest thing I took out of that is don’t look at it as a playoff game,’’ Leonard said. “Look at it as beating the Houston Texans and not trying to win a playoff game.
“That’s my biggest thing coming from the Goat. He’s been playing (30) playoff games.’’
Vinatieri’s message convinced Leonard to alter his approach.
“At first I was thinking we’ve got to win a playoff game,’’ he said, “but once again, it’s a regular game and you’ve got to beat the Houston Texans. You’ve got to downplay that it’s going to be a playoff game. Just gotta play the Houston Texans.’’
Rookie running back Nyheim Hines agreed, but also understands what’s at stake.
“Every game counts. This is cool,’’ he said. “This is what you dream about as a kid. And when you go to the NFL, you want to play in the Super Bowl one day.
“I’m real fortunate for this being my first year and us having a 10-6 record and having the opportunity. We’re not going to take it for granted because there are a lot of teams that wish they were here.’’
As much as Reich and Vinatieri urged the team to stick to the routine that’s enabled it to overcome a 1-5 start and win nine of its last 10 games, there was no denying the reality that Saturday’s showdown with the Texans isn’t on the same level as last Sunday’s win at Tennessee.
This is the playoffs. And there is an inherent difference.
“The needles adjust slightly,’’ Reich said. “For instance, the importance of running and stopping the run; the importance of the turnover differential; penalties, or lack thereof. I think the needle gets pushed and the emphasis gets pushed.
“We’ve proven we can win a game throwing it 50 times, but in my experience that gets harder to do in playoff football. We can do it if you have to, but you want to establish dominance and a physicality up front on both sides of the ball.’’
Luck led the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, highlighted by a trip to the AFC Championship game against New England after the 2014 season. He stressed the importance of “focusing on the process,’’ but was unable to disguise his eagerness at returning to the postseason. The latter is especially true considering his long rehab from surgery on his right shoulder and missing 2017.
“The fact that we get to go play another game in the playoffs and see what we can do, that’s stinkin’ awesome,’’ Luck said. “I think a small part of us understands how special it’s been so far, and I said this (after the Titans win), fulfilling.
“But satisfied? No, not at all. We know there is work to do and we know that it starts with today. It starts with getting better today.’
“I don’t think you need to compensate for a roster that does not have playoff experience because it’s still a football game. It is a 60-minute game. The same rules apply. We have been in this mode for a while now so I think that bodes well for our team.’’