Tennessee went to San Diego a year ago with only 18 players who had prior postseason experience, a very young roster built largely through the draft. Now there are 37 such Titans led by a very seasoned core, and that knowledge is helpful as the team works through a bye week before hosting an AFC divisional playoff game Jan. 10.
Linebacker Keith Bulluck, who has started 113 consecutive games with six playoff appearances, said this team is more mature than the group that lost to San Diego last year.
“Guys have been here to see how hard it is to get there. When you get there, how quickly it can be over,” Bulluck said. “That’s in the back of everybody’s minds. At the same time, we have a good core of veteran guys who have played in some pretty big football games in this league that can keep everybody together.”
Punter Craig Hentrich has the most experience on the roster, and his 21 postseason games rank him fourth among active players behind only Tedy Bruschi of New England, Brett Favre and Indianapolis’ Adam Vinatieri (22). But 15 other players have played in at least two postseason games with four having been to Super Bowls.
The Titans brought back free agents Jevon Kearse, who went to a Super Bowl in his rookie season with Tennessee and in 2004 with Philadelphia, and right guard Jake Scott, a Super Bowl winner with the Colts in the 2006 season. Another signee was tight end Alge Crumpler, who’s made four playoff starts, and receiver Justin McCareins with seven playoff games.
Cornerback Tyrone Poole, a 12-year veteran with seven playoff games to his credit, was a late season addition for extra depth.
“Over the years, we’ve seen teams take a real aggressive approach to free agency and almost ‘go out and try to buy a championship’ and have it not work,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Although we haven’t won a championship yet, we’ve had some success and we tend to lean a little more heavily on the draft and selected free agents and try to develop our own players.”
That is why 20 of the current Titans got their first glimpse at the postseason in that wild-card game in San Diego last season, a group that included 11 starters.
“I don’t want to say that guys felt like they were just happy to be there,” said cornerback Nick Harper, who won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis. “That was kind of the mood in the locker room whereas this year it’s a totally different mood where guys know we belong here. We’re supposed to be here.”
Safety Chris Hope, who enjoyed the AFC’s No. 1 seed with Pittsburgh in 2004 only to lose the AFC championship, noticed it too.
“It was like a sigh of relief, like we had already done enough. ... Now we come in with a confidence and understanding of how important it is to finish every play, how important it is to have great practices, and how important it is not to get caught up in the regular season because it doesn’t carry over into the playoffs,” Hope said.
Harper said he sees the proof in how players are hitting the weight room to rebuild their strength and running extra to get their legs back underneath them during this bye week.
Safety Vincent Fuller made his playoff debut in that San Diego game, and said players like himself now understand the increased intensity of the postseason, where every play is crucial.
That makes listening to players like Hope and Harper easier than ever.
“These guys preached it last year, but more so this year we’re taking heed to what they say, because we see it’s a whole different ballgame,” Fuller said.