Jerrell Freeman had just played the playoff game of his life.
The Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker had a game-high 15 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble that his team recovered in a 26-10 AFC Wild Card playoff victory over the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
After a few of the expected questions, the media scrum around Freeman broke up.
I stated the obvious, that he had to know what was coming next. And I repeated “Peyton” about a half dozen times.
Freeman seemed a bit caught off guard. Then after thinking about it, he responded, “It’s about team. Team. Team. Team. Team. Team.”
The Colts knew this past week would include a lot of hype about facing their old quarterback, Peyton Manning, in Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff game versus the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
And players were prepared. To a man, they emphasized what Freeman did, that this game wasn’t about one player. It was about one team trying to beat the other.
And a couple of other players knew, even in that jubilant locker room, that most wouldn’t give the Colts much of a chance in this game. The second-seeded Broncos (12-4) are touchdown favorites against the fourth-seeded Colts (12-5). The Broncos won the regular-season opener 31-24 over Indy at this venue. And Denver is unbeaten at home this season. Manning has lost just three games at his new home in three seasons.
Even optimists can’t ignore one trend with the Colts this season — how they performed against playoff teams. Specifically, how many points they allowed in losing to four playoff teams. The Colts gave up 31 to Denver, 51 to Pittsburgh, 42 to New England and 42 to Dallas.
Beating the Bengals again is one thing, critics are quick to remind, but beating the Broncos is an entirely different and daunting challenge. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is never shy about expressing himself, so it came as little surprise when he acknowledged that he knew most people wouldn’t pick the Colts to beat the Broncos.
“Who was the first person to knock Mike Tyson out?” Jean Francois asked me in a boxing analogy.
“Buster Douglas,” I said, not needing to think about it because I actually interviewed Douglas in Ohio after he became the undisputed world heavyweight champion with his stunning victory over Tyson in 1990 in Tokyo, Japan. The 10th-round knockout has been called the greatest heavyweight upset in boxing history.
“Didn’t everybody doubt Buster Douglas?” Jean Francois asked.
“Nobody gave Buster a shot,” I said.
“Think anybody gives us a shot?” Jean Francois asked.
“Most people, no,” I said.
“My point exactly,” Jean Francois said. “We’ve got to go out there and do the same thing Buster Douglas did to Mike Tyson. Nobody is giving us the win. No one. I know know one is giving us the win.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“The one thing I love about everybody,” he said, “everybody has got their own opinion. Either you can accept it or not pay attention to it. And we’re not paying attention to everybody’s opinion until that clock says zero, zero, zero, zero and we’ve got more points or they’ve got more points. Until then, I know everybody has got us losing this game.
“That’s the best feeling to have, when you’ve got the world against you.”
Outside linebacker Erik Walden is another player who doesn’t hesitate to express himself freely. When he got fined $27,562 by the NFL this season for bumping an official, he showed the letter from the league office to the media and said, “Thank you, Roger” in reference to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
I mentioned Jean Francois talking about the doubters. Walden ate that up, too.
“I need this for bragging rights because (Broncos wide receiver) Demaryius Thomas and I are from the same hometown,” Walden said of their Georgia roots.
“I knew there were a lot of people who doubted us today. We’re always aware of that.”
Walden smiled when I suggested, “You eat that up?”
“Yeah, we love it that way. We love it that way. We love it that way,” he said. “I love it. They’ve been telling me that my whole life. I was supposed to be out of the league. I feed off it. It ain’t nothing but fuel.”