INDIANAPOLIS – From the day the 38-year old quarterback with a $25 million contract in his hand but a glaring hole on his NFL resume walked in the building, the tiered goal was clear.
Get in the playoffs. Make a run. Hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa Feb. 7.
Step 1 has been taken. Now comes the heavier lifting: the Indianapolis Colts’ first-round meeting with the Buffalo Bills Saturday in Orchard Park, N.Y.
“Finishing 11-5 is a great accomplishment,’’ Frank Reich said Monday on a Zoom conference call. “It’s not a good year, that’s a great year.
“We earned it. We’re in the playoffs. It’s a grueling season, and when you get here, you got here because you earned it. We have a team that earned the right to be in this discussion.’’
After earning the No. 7 seed as the AFC’s third wild card with Sunday’s 28-14 win over Jacksonville, Reich found himself addressing a raucous locker room about the opportunity ahead.
“We talked about this in the locker room yesterday,’’ he said. “It starts with we believe we have the team to win it all. We’ve got the right players, we’ve got the right coaches, the process and the belief and conviction in each other to win it all.’’
They’re also led by a quarterback who’s accomplished so much during a 17-year career. But missing on Philip Rivers’ gaudy resume – the 421 touchdowns, the 63,440 yards, the 134 regular-season wins, the seven playoff appearances in 15 seasons as a starter – is a trip to the Super Bowl.
When Rivers and the Chargers went their separate ways last offseason, his search for a second NFL home centered on which team offered the best opportunity for a return to the playoffs and a legitimate challenge for that elusive world championship.
That opportunity – along with a one-year, $25 million contract – brought him to Indy, where the chase for a championship resumed.
“I mean, it’s about this team,’’ Rivers said Sunday. “But yes, certainly wanted to be a part of a playoff team and a team that has a chance to win a championship. I definitely found out early on that I was on that kind of team, and then you have to go out and prove it over the course of 16 games, and we have done that and got ourselves in and have a chance.
“Especially when you get late in your career, even the last six, seven years, you’re just sick at the end of the year when you don’t even have a chance. You have to give yourself a chance, and we have done that, and now it’s just a matter of going out and trying to win a game one week at a time.’’
Reich’s eyes brightened a bit when the discussion turned to Rivers and that missing piece of his NFL legacy.
“I absolutely have thought about it,’’ he said. “Thought about it at the beginning of the year, thought about it now that we’re in the playoffs. He’s had an unbelievable year, and fulfilling that dream starts with getting in.’’
The Super Bowl, Reich added, is “where we want to end up. That’s where he wants to end up.
“It’s a great opportunity for all of us. And I know one thing Philip I’m sure will say when you guys talk to him is he doesn’t take any of these opportunities for granted. Even though he’s had 17 years and he’s been in the playoffs multiple times, every one is special. It’s still that way for me as a coach.’’
Motivation shouldn’t be an issue. Initially, this is the playoffs and it’s win and advance, or lose and hit the offseason.
Moreover, the Colts enter the weekend as the heaviest underdogs in the AFC’s opening round: roughly 6.5-7 points to the 13-3, No. 2 seeded Bills.
“I’d rather be the 1 seed,’’ Reich said, “but I do feel good about our team more than anything. The pressure’s not on us. We should be loose. We should be aggressive. We should be freed up to just play our best game of the year against a really good football team.
“In reality, no one’s going to give us a chance. It’s us-against-the-world mentality, and that’s all you need. When you’re with this team the way I am day-in and day-out, you would know where I get the confidence from to feel like we’ve got the team to beat anybody in this tournament.’’
Been there before
Reich’s confidence also is rooted in having been associated with 11-plus win teams during a career that spans nearly three decades as a player and coach.
He’s been part of teams that piled up at least 11 wins eight times. On six of those occasions, that team reached the Super Bowl: the 2017 world champion Philadelphia Eagles (13-3); the ’09 Colts (14-2) that lost in the Super Bowl to New Orleans; the ’08 (12-4) and ’07 (13-3) Colts; and the Buffalo Bills from 1990-93 that reached four straight Super Bowls, each time with at least 11 regular-season wins.
“You win 11 games in this league,’’ Reich said, “you’ve got a team that can get there, and we really believe that.
“You’ve got to get in. You’ve got to take advantage, seize the moment, seize that opportunity. I don’t care what seed you are. We’re the 7th seed. Big deal. We’ve got to seize the opportunity.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.