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Playoff approach: 'Just play'


CHARLOTTE – Sometimes it's best to keep things simple for players just getting their feet wet in the NFL.

The good news is that on a roster featuring plenty of young players in key roles, the best advice that Carolina's experienced players can offer when it comes to playoff football is as simple as it gets.

"Just play," eighth-year tight end Greg Olsen said. "Don't try to make it more than it is. We have played winning football. We don't need to reinvent ourselves just because it's the playoffs."

Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, a first-year Panther who has previously played on five playoff teams, agrees with Olsen. Cotchery, flanked in the wide receivers room by rookies Kelvin Benjamin and Philly Brown as well as second-year pro Brenton Bersin, said that's exactly the mentality in his position group.

"The young guys in my group, they just want to play," Cotchery said. "They just want to play ball. They want to compete and have fun. They don't care about how big people say the game is.

"That approach could help a veteran. Sometimes you've seen too much as a veteran."

Benjamin certainly flourished with that approach a year ago when he caught the game-winning touchdown for Florida State in the national championship game. It's an approach that fellow rookie starters Tre Boston at safety and Trai Turner at guard are embracing.

"I know it's a privilege to be here, but I'm just going to try to take it like any other game," Boston said. "Don't try to oversell it, because at the end of the day it's just football."

Added Turner: "There are no nerves. You just go out there and play football."

The young players seem to grasp that the playoffs, even with everything on the line, is about going out and playing the game. At the same time, it is about more than that.

Ninth-year safety Roman Harper, who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints, said it's about going out and playing your game.

"I've seen it many times. Guys say, 'This is my time to shine. Everybody is going to be watching.' And then you fall right on your face," Harper said. "The tempo picks up a little more and the whole emotional aspect of it, because everybody wants it so bad. At the end of the day, your plays are going to come. You've just got to make them when they do. You have to control yourself, contain yourself."

That kind of perspective shows how playoff experience can pay dividends. Last season, with a roster full of first-time playoff participants and veterans who hadn't been in the playoffs for years – led by a head coach making his first playoff appearance in that role – the Panthers didn't look like themselves in a home loss to the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Divisional Playoff.

"I lost focus for almost a quarter. I was upset. I didn't think the game was being called fairly," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That's my fault. At that point, I've got to move onto the next detail. I can't get caught up in that, because the players feed off it. I had a bunch of negative energy, and players started to buy into that.

"Now we've been through it, we understand it, and we're going to guard against it."

So now, with last year's experience fresh on the minds of the coaching staff and many players, and with a fresh mix of rookies and veterans added to the equation, the Panthers are poised for a new experience.

"Last year was my first year in the playoffs really on any level. I had to get a feel for it, and now I think everything will be different," left tackle Byron Bell said. "Once the ball is snapped, we just have to play ball – put five hats on five hats and just roll."

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