By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
INDIANAPOLIS — As his team walked off the field last January in Baltimore, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano asked the Colts to remember what they were feeling.
And to strive never to feel that way again.
After a roller coaster regular-season ride, the Colts (11-5) find themselves back in the AFC playoffs today. And the season-ending 24-9 loss against the Ravens last year remains fresh in their minds.
Asked what he remembers most about his first trip to the playoffs, quarterback Andrew Luck mentioned the finality of it all. Lose today against the Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) in a Wild Card game at Lucas Oil Stadium, and there's no chance to come back next week and set things right.
"It seems like mistakes are so much bigger (in the playoffs)," Luck said. "I think you really have to take care of the football, convert third downs, get first downs. If you're in the red zone, you have to score points."
Those, of course, are the same keys every week. But in the postseason, everything is magnified.
Especially turnovers. And especially against the Chiefs.
Kansas City started 9-0 this season behind three main strengths — all-purpose running back Jamaal Charles, an explosive kick and punt return game and a defense that thrives on taking the ball away from opponents.
All three make life easier for efficient — if unspectacular — quarterback Alex Smith.
During a 23-7 victory in Kansas City two weeks ago, the Colts won the battle on two of the three major fronts. Charles had his fair share of success, scoring on a 31-yard run to cap the opening drive and gaining 144 total yards on 18 touches.
But the Chiefs did not set up any scores with big plays on special teams, and Indianapolis did not turn the ball over. Instead, Kansas City uncharacteristically coughed the ball up four times, and head coach Andy Reid said that's one of the areas for improvement the team focused on this week.
With Luck under center, the Colts are 6-0 when facing a team for the second time in the same season. The game almost always changes, but the goals remain the same.
"You know each other a bit better than the first time you played," Reid said. "I think it comes down to who executes the best, who can eliminate the mistakes or who has the least amount of mistakes and who scores the most points, right? That's kind of what it comes down to."
Indianapolis and Kansas City have met three times in the postseason — 1996, 2004 and 2007 — and the Colts have scored the most points each time. In fact, the Chiefs haven't won a playoff game against any opponent since Joe Montana led them to a 28-20 victory against the Houston Oilers on Jan. 16, 1994.
Reid aims to change that.
He won 10 of his 19 postseason games during 14 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, advancing to five conference championship games and one Super Bowl. In his first season with Kansas City, he's already taken the team from a 2-14 season back into the playoffs.
"Everybody just went with him," Charles said of the reasons for Reid's immediate success. "Everybody just went behind him. He's been around a long time, and to have him come to the Chiefs, he gave us motivation. He gave us confidence. He gave us his word. He treats us like men."
Many Colts say similar things about Pagano, who took Indianapolis from 2-14 to the playoffs last year.
One head coach will continue down the road to the Super Bowl after today's game. The other will begin regrouping for next season.
Pagano said he emphasized to his players on the first day of training camp this summer at Anderson University to take nothing for granted. If this is the only shot this group of players has to accomplish something special together, it's best to make it count.
"We're not guaranteed tomorrow," Pagano said. "We're not guaranteed next year. And so let's pour everything that we have into this season. It's like this game, there is no tomorrow, so we will not leave anything out on that field."
SOLD OUT: Meijer bought the final 1,200 tickets Friday to ensure a sellout for today's AFC Wild Card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium. The tickets were distributed to the Indiana National Guard, Indiana Blue Star Salute, Survivor Outreach Services and Wish for Our Heroes for use by military families. As a result of the sellout, the game between the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs will be televised by WTHR (Channel 13) with the pregame broadcast beginning at 4 p.m.