ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** Some players' careers conclude before they play a single playoff game, and for players who haven't been in Denver for the previous four consecutive AFC West titles, a trip to the postseason has presented them with an uncommon and tremendous opportunity.
"Enjoy every moment of it," said defensive end Antonio Smith said, who is preparing for his ninth career postseason game. "Sacrifice everything you can sacrifice, because one thing I've learned is it [doesn't] come often. […] And some players, it takes your whole career, so you just enjoy every moment of it. Make the sacrifices you need."
Playoff experience is abundant on the Broncos' roster; the 22 listed offensive and defensive starters have a combined 101 playoff games under their belts.
Of those 22 players, just two—center Matt Paradis and right tackle Michael Schofield—will make their first postseason appearances on Sunday. But there are also multiple players who have had key roles this season who are either first-year players or rookies, including outside linebackers Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett.
"I think the fact that they played a lot in the course of the season should help them," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "Guys like Shane and those young kids, they think they know what this next step is all about, playoff football, but it's a rude awakening for some of them. But it doesn't take long for them to fit in, and he's played some big games for us; he played some big games in college, so the good news is we've counted on everybody and we'll count on him again this weekend."
What seems to separate playoff football, in its substance, from regular-season football is the level of focus. A team looks for any edge it can find in the playoffs to help create separation, and where there are weak links, they are bound to be found.
The countdown to gameday is at three days, and the Broncos continued their practice work to prepare for Pittsburgh. (photos by Ben Swanson)
"I think it's easier as a younger player, your first time in the playoffs, to get kind of wrapped up in the atmosphere, said eight-year veteran offensive tackle Ryan Harris. "It comes down to what you do on the field. We've got a lot of guys who know that and we've got a lot of guys, especially in this locker room, who know if you don't perform well, you're not going to achieve your goals."
Like preseason to the regular season, so is it with the transition from the latter to the postseason, said Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, who has coached in 30 playoff games.
"It's a different level each time you go up," he said. "They played in the preseason and we told them, 'Hey the season is going to be another level up.' Which it is and I think they found that out. It's a different level when you play in the playoffs. It's a different level when you play in the Super Bowl. You just have to step up with it."
Ray said that veterans around him have simply told him, "Lock in."
But the message isn't just about focus, it's about the stakes and how individual accountability ties into a playoff run.
"You don't want to be that guy that doesn't have your assignment down and cost the team," Ray said.
And that means "rookie" labels are immaterial. The likes of Ray, Barrett, Paradis and Schofield will all be relied upon, regardless of their experience, and the experience of the Broncos' veterans will be vital to helping guide them.
"I think that experience that a lot of the older guys have—and then the rookies and younger guys really taking it on, that experience—and saying, 'Yeah, you wear the rookie tag, but when you're out there, you're a player just like everybody else,'" outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "You're a team player," he added. "You can sort of see how those guys have matured with that experience and that team camaraderie with a conglomerate of guys is getting together and playing like there's no tomorrow."