INDIANAPOLIS – 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 year’s 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, 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 his 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.
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.
Note: Colts left guard Joe Reitz will not play in Sunday’s playoff game because of a concussion. He will likely be replaced by Jeff Linkenbach.
Reitz has been inactive for seven games this season because of knee and head injuries, though he had started eight of the last 10 games.
He was kicked in the head on an extra-point during last Sunday’s win over Houston.
Coach Chuck Pagano says nobody else has been ruled out.