Colts veterans provide valuable playoff advice to younger players

BY Michael Marot • January 2, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS — Three postseason losses taught Anthony Castonzo some valuable lessons about playoff football.

The Indianapolis Colts left tackle hopes his teammates find an easier way to learn.

"Basically, my advice is not to take it any differently," Castonzo said Wednesday as the Colts prepare for Saturday's wild-card game in Houston. "Practice the same way, work the same way, play the same way. You have to not make it more than it is."

It's a mantra coaches and players in Indy have stuck to since the Tony Dungy era.

The Hall of Fame coach, who brought Indy its first football title, often talked about how most playoff games were lost rather than won because of the natural temptation to try and do too much — and the ensuing mistakes.

Young players, the Colts know, tend to be the most vulnerable and Indianapolis (10-6) has one of the league's least-experienced teams.

Twenty-four of the 53 players on the active roster are in their first or second NFL seasons and only 15 have participated in a playoff game.

Castonzo, T.Y. Hilton, Andrew Luck and Adam Vinatieri are the only remaining active players from Indy's previous playoff team, which lost in the AFC championship game at New England in the 2014 season.

Of the seven who own Super Bowl rings only three — linebacker Najee Goode, defensive end Jabaal Sheard and Vinatieri — have actually been on the field for those title runs.

The other 47 players on Indy's roster have won a total of six postseason games, with midseason acquisition Mike Mitchell accounting for half.

So first-year coach Frank Reich recruited some help this week.

"I was sitting around thinking, 'OK, how many playoff games has (Vinatieri) played?'" Reich said, noting the answer was 30. "So I said, 'All right, tell me Vinny what have you learned?' The (text) message he sent me, I thought, was vintage and we shared that with the team (Tuesday) morning and we had Vinny share a few extra thoughts on that. A lot of wisdom in what he was saying."

Vinatieri didn't need a handful of Super Bowl rings to provide credibility for his message.

The league's oldest active player, at age 46, became the NFL's career scoring leader earlier this season and heads into his 31st playoff game already holding the title of career postseason scoring leader.

"I told them it's a playoff game but it's the Houston Texans we're playing," Vinatieri said. "There are a lot of ebbs and flows and you've got to stay focused on your job."

His words appear to have resonated.

Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, the league's top tackler with a franchise-record 163, said he's sticking to his regular routine and Pro Bowl guard Quenton Nelson, another rookie, isn't making any changes either. Both are eager to get started.

Reich acknowledges there is one significant difference between the regular season and postseason: Mistakes are magnified.

So the Colts will spend the rest of this week on cleanup duty after having two turnovers and 12 penalties in Sunday's 33-17 playoff-clinching victory at Tennessee.

"I would say the needles adjust slightly. For instance, the importance of running and stopping the run, the importance of the turnover battle, the importance of penalties or lack thereof," said Reich, who played on all four of Buffalo's AFC championship teams in the 1990s.

"I think we have proven we can win a game throwing it 50 times, but in my experience that gets harder to do in playoff football. You can do it if you have to, but you want to establish dominance."

Being young also has an advantage.

"They have no idea how big a moment it is and if they go on a run they'll have no idea how special it is," former punter Pat McAfee said after doing his first NFL broadcast for Fox Sports last weekend. "My rookie year we didn't lose until we chose to lose in the Super Bowl and I thought, we'd be back the next year."

Instead, McAfee never made it back and Castonzo missed out on the playoffs each of the past three years.

But this time feels different to Castonzo, who believes the young guys such as Leonard and Nelson have changed this team. They didn't crack under the pressure all season and none of the Colts expect them to start now.

"They bring a lot of energy and are playing at a high level," he said. "That's one of the big reasons we're here."

Notes: Center Ryan Kelly (stinger), safety Clayton Geathers (knee), linebacker Anthony Walker (shoulder) and running back Jordan Wilkins (knee and ankle) were full participants at practice Wednesday. Geathers and Kelly were inactive last week, but Kelly said Wednesday he expects to start Saturday. ... Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron took the day off while four-time Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton missed another workout because of his injured ankle.