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INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Caldwell talks about the "quantum shift," how everything becomes faster and more intense in the NFL playoffs. He makes it sound as if football in January and February is being played in a constant state of warp speed.
What the Indianapolis Colts coach doesn't give much credence to is the anvil of expectations that appears to be resting between the shoulders of this Colts team. It's always a screaming bullet point this time of the season, this debate about pressure. We do an annual playoff autopsy about who is feeling it, who is crumbling under it, and who is in the best position to overcome it. Frankly, it's often an empty, overly bloated debate, more relevant to the outside world than within the confines of an NFL practice facility. But the concept truly does fit these Colts, because while the bye week has temporarily quelled the flames of a self-created firestorm, what happens next will hang over this franchise for a long, long time.
If there is any question of that, one needs only to listen to the Colts, who are still being called to address – four years later – the questions of the 2005 season. Like this team, that 14-2 regular season campaign sputtered at the end, before suffering a lone haunting playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Colts sat their starters in the season finale that year, and came out flat in the loss to the Steelers. Now the defeat lingers and creates an eerie feeling of familiarity to 2009, even if Colts players brush it to the side.
"There hasn't been a lot of talk [about 2005]," said defensive end Dwight Freeney(notes), whose Colts square off against the Baltimore Ravens in Saturday's AFC divisional contest. "That was 2005, and that was a completely different team. On defense here now, I think there are only three or four guys remaining from that team. It was a completely different defense. There's not much talk that needs to be said other than this is the playoffs. Either win or go home. Everybody understands that."
Added wideout Reggie Wayne(notes). "It's a whole different year. It's a different feel. There's nothing we can do about that. All we can focus on is the Baltimore Ravens right now. We don't have a crystal ball, can't rewind time, don't have a time machine. The only thing we can do is focus on the task at hand, and that's get ready for this week against a good Ravens team."
And yet, the Colts enter under far different circumstances than the Ravens, and realistically, under a larger weight than every other NFL team in the postseason. That's not to say the Minnesota Vikings and quarterback Brett Favre(notes) wouldn't be devastated to fail in the playoffs. Or for that matter, Drew Brees(notes) and the New Orleans Saints or even Philip Rivers(notes) and the San Diego Chargers. Every team can distinctly feel what is riding with each passing play in the postseason.
But the Colts have more on the line. When they sat their starters in a Week 16 loss to the New York Jets, and then rolled out the "we retreated now to advance later" philosophy, they were essentially stating that, "Hey, we know exactly what we're doing here. We know the best way to win a Super Bowl." It was a move that came about somewhere at the intersection of prudence, confidence and arrogance. And while it made little sense to the outside world, it was done with one goal in mind – winning the Lombardi Trophy.
That's the compelling part of the Colts journey up to this point. No other team in these NFL playoffs actually gave away anything in the process of getting to this point. Nobody purposely took a step backward in order to go forward. Perhaps some would look back and argue that the Vikings surrendered something early on, wagering the season and some offensive control in their wooing of Favre. But that has already paid off: The Vikings are a championship contender and head coach Brad Childress landed a contract extension.
You can't even look at the Saints and assume catastrophe if they fall short of a Super Bowl, because they never actually pointed to that goal and then gave something up for it. Their pursuit of perfection was embraced and lost honestly in Week 15 against the Dallas Cowboys. That's one of the reasons Saints general manager Mickey Loomis is still being applauded in New Orleans, while Colts president Bill Polian has been cursed repeatedly for his "16-0 was not a goal for us" stance. Those two men might be a perfect microcosm of this whole thing. If the Saints fall short, nobody will be questioning Loomis. If the Colts do the same, Polian might need to take residence in a spider hole until the heat dies down.
And while Indianapolis denies feeling any weight on its shoulders – "I wouldn't say there's any more pressure than there would normally be," first-year head coach Caldwell said – you can see the team is doing things to combat mistakes of 2005, if not hit the reset button on the faltering finish in 2009. During the bye week, the coaching staff turned the clock back on practices, pitting the starting offense against the starting defense at a high intensity pace that Caldwell likened to the early days of training camp.
"It's an intensity factor," Caldwell said of the efforts to keep the team sharp. "We have some guys who are very capable of doing it … you almost have to try and place yourself in a ballgame – voice inflection, mannerisms that you use in games in terms of speed to the ball, all those things. Even when you don't have pads on, prior to the snap can be exactly like you would handle it in the course of a game. … All of the periods [of starters facing starters] were based upon almost an early training camp kind of atmosphere in that regard. We were able to get a lot of work done [during the bye], maybe the three best practices we've had in a long time."
"We learned a lot from the 2005 season," linebacker Gary Brackett(notes) said. "[We learned from] how we prepared and even how we practiced during those bye weeks when we had those two weeks off. This time, the [starters] got a lot more of the reps and a lot more of the game type situations. So, I think we're a lot more prepared."
Now Saturday will provide the first answers to whether the mistakes of 2005 can alter the fortunes of 2009, and whether the Colts' late-season retreat will parlay into another Super Bowl ring. If that's not legitimate postseason pressure, then no such thing exists.