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Can't hide the excitement for NFL playoffs

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BARRY WILNER
January 7, 2012

The look of excitement and the eagerness in his voice gave Tom Coughlin away. It's playoff time, and he loves it that his New York Giants are back in contention after missing out the last two years.


Just as spirited is Denver cornerback Champ Bailey. And Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton.


Their teams start down the path to Indianapolis on Sunday when the Giants host the Falcons, and the Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers. The playoffs begin Saturday with Cincinnati at Houston and Detroit at New Orleans.


"The energy and the excitement are even stronger than yesterday and that's the way I think it works. I think it goes along," Coughlin said.


When told he looked particularly animated this week, Coughlin threw up his hands and replied with a smile: "How can you say that?"


The NFC East champions went 9-7, one game worse than visiting Atlanta's record as a wild card out of the NFC South. Denver was a mere 8-8 in the AFC West, but that was good enough to win the division in a tiebreaker over Oakland and San Diego.


It's the Broncos' first trip to the postseason since losing in the 2005 AFC title game to the Steelers. Bailey remembers that defeat, and that Pittsburgh went on to win the Super Bowl. But he isn't harping on the past too much; the present is too invigorating.


"I'll definitely be excited. That's every game," the 13-year veteran said. "I mean this is the playoffs, there's a little bit more excitement there just because it's hard to get in this tournament and when you're in you have to take advantage."


Many doubt the Broncos are equipped to do so against a Steelers team that was 12-4, losing the AFC North to Baltimore on a tiebreaker, and allowed only 227 points, fewest in the league. Pittsburgh is playoff-tested, with three Super Bowl appearances in the last six seasons, including a loss to Green Bay last February.


"That's the best thing about being here. We're usually in the playoffs," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "When we get here we know what it takes to get going. Hopefully we can lean on that leadership and lean on that experience and hopefully it can lead us to a few wins here."


It better, Hampton insisted.


"If you get to the playoffs and that doesn't get you fired up, something's wrong with you," Hampton said. "So yeah, you get nervous a little bit, but it's a good kind of nerves. Certainly beats watching at home."


Watching at home this weekend are the top seeds, defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay in the NFC, and New England in the AFC. Also on byes this weekend are No. 2 seeds San Francisco in the NFC and Baltimore in the AFC.


Coughlin and the Giants recognize the advantages to earning a bye, but also know going all the way hardly is impossible when you have to play four postseason games. Hey, they did it in 2007 as a wild card, just as the Steelers did in 2005 and the Packers last year.


Coughlin even sounds as if he doesn't particularly mind playing this week while four other teams await the winners.


"I'll tell you what, it's exciting. When you're sitting there late at night, it's exciting," he said.


New York hasn't won a postseason game since stunning undefeated New England for the 2007 championship. Atlanta has fallen in both of its playoff games since Matt Ryan took over as quarterback, including a 48-21 home rout at the hands of Green Bay a year ago as the NFC's top seed.


Star receiver Roddy White understands the need for excitement, but also the need to temper it a bit.


"Absolutely. When you get into playoff football, you've got to be focused, locked in, tuned in," White said. "You can't go out there and make mental mistakes because any play can be the play. Everything has to be tight.


"Everybody is going to be moving a little bit faster, running a little bit faster. It makes the tempo faster. The mental aspect of the game has to be right, because if it's not, that's how you get beat."


Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, who holds nearly every career record for tight ends, is 0-4 in the postseason. He's not just looking for one win, but an even higher level of exhilaration.


"It would mean a lot to me, but at the same time, that's not our goal," Gonzalez said. "After the game if we're fortunate to win, don't expect me to be elated. Ask me after the Super Bowl. That's where I'll be truly excited. The goal is not to win a playoff game; it's about winning a couple of playoff games."



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