Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ALBANY -- It's a good thing the Panthers have their names on their uniforms. If they didn't, Lucious Davis might have trouble recognizing his team.

"They look different, talk different and act different,'' the Panthers coach said.

"I can see it in their eyes. I can see it in the way they are practicing. I can see it in the way they are watching film,'' Davis said. "It's just a different atmosphere around here.''

Oh yeah, it's playoff week.

That means a lot of things to a lot of people, but to this team, a group that all but vowed to win it all before they ever stepped on the field, it's more than a culmination to a season, it's the next step toward something they have been talking about for months.

It's this simple: Four teams, two games.

That's what's left in this Southern Indoor Football League season, which began in Albany as little more than an idea back in January when the franchise didn't even know what league it would wind up in, or if there would be a team at all.

Now the Albany Panthers, who somehow turned a late beginning into a fast and frantic start, winning their first five games, are the top seed in the two-tiered playoff format with a home field advantage.

They can play the title game at the Albany Civic Center on July 17 if they get by the opening playoff round this week against the defending SIFL champs on Saturday night.

Just beat the Louisiana Swashbucklers (5-6) and the title game is back in the Good Life City, where the Panthers have known nothing but the good life, going 6-0 at the Civic Center.

Still, they haven't played a home game in more than a month, but the way these guys are talking they could be playing the Russians on Mars and it wouldn't matter.

It's playoff week and everyone is feeling it.

"Guys are on edge. Coach is on edge. But it's a good edge,'' receiver Clenton Rafe said. "I feel the adrenaline already, and on Saturday you know the guys are going to come out with a lot more emotion and the intensity will be higher.''

It's already pretty high. The Panthers (8-3) had a bye week last week, and met on Monday to go over special teams play. But a funny thing happened.

"We were just going to go over special teams, but we ended up having a full practice,'' Davis said. "That's how bad these guys want to play.''

They practiced Monday and Tuesday, and Davis said he could see a big difference from a team that had an easy time putting together the best record in the SIFL.

The Panthers and Columbus both ended the season at 8-3, but Albany beat Columbus twice in three meetings, giving the Panthers home field throughout the playoffs.

But no one is taking anything for granted.

"We're still hungry,'' Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester said. "We haven't accomplished what we set out to accomplish. We know we are there now, we're right there. We don't want to let each other down.

"You can feel it now, feel the difference. We've amped it up a whole other notch. It's a different vibe now that we're in the playoffs.''

They have been promoting the game for more than two weeks and are bringing in former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley to sign autographs and pose for pictures before the game in hopes of having the biggest crowd of the season.

The players just want to step on the field.

"The intensity naturally goes up,'' said kicker Juan Bongarra, who kicked at practice on Tuesday like it was the Super Bowl. Bongarra was hitting everything from a variety of distances. Don't forget, he kicked a 50-plus-yard field goal in the loss to the Swashbucklers.

"He was on in that game,'' Davis said. "And he looked great in practice (Tuesday). He kicked eight field goals out of nine. He looked good today.''

It's more than looking good. It's the way this team feels right now.

"Everybody is getting into it,'' Bongarra said. "The intensity is way up this week, because this is what you're playing for -- to win a title. The focus has to be better than it was in the regular season. We feel it the minute we cross that line and walk onto the field at practice.''

Davis texted everyone last weekend, and he said every player sent back the same message: "They all said they would be ready,'' he said. Then Davis flat out told them on Monday: "If you aren't ready, you're not playing.''

'Nuff said.

Davis said on Tuesday he wasn't worried about that now.

There's an extra push everywhere on the field, an almost passionate feeling at practice, where the mundane has been replaced by electricity.

"I don't know about how much the adrenaline is kicking in just yet, but I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn't excited,'' said center Doug Bond. "There is always a little lag at the end of the season. But when you are in the playoffs, it's like you get refreshed.''

That feeling -- the one that mixes a brand of emotions that has these players smiling a bit more while they are more serious than ever -- is driving them on and off the field.

"The difference is you are more focused,'' Bond said. "And I mean more focused about everything, the little things. It's a matter of paying a lot more attention to the detail.

"For a quarterback, it means running the plays, being sharper, for linemen it's paying more attention to the detail of your technique, for wide receivers it's being crisp in running your routes. It's all the things you do, only being more focused on everything you do.''

The trick is to keep a balance, juggle that extra push that comes with playoff week with a dose of patience.

"You can't play the big game before the game gets here,'' Bond said. "If you do you will be mentally exhausted.''

Rafe says it's simple.

"You can be emotionally and physically ready, and we need to be ready for this game,'' he said. "You just have to realize that you can't do things you normally don't do. We know that. We all feel it and know what we have to do in practice to get ready. Practice is better. The tempo is faster and everyone is getting after it.

"We know what's at stake,'' he said. "We wanted to get to this point, and now we are here.''