INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Irsay wasn't shy in expressing what he wanted to see out of the Indianapolis Colts heading into this season.
After earning a playoff berth for the first time in four seasons in 2018 — and then winning on the road in the Wild Card round before falling in the Divisional round — Irsay wanted the Colts to take another big step forward in 2019.
"What I'd like to see us do, and it's not an essential but it certainly would be helpful, is to see this team get homefield advantage when you're two games away from the Super Bowl," Irsay told reporters back in July at training camp. "Hopefully they're both home games (or) at least one of them are."
It's been an interesting journey so far, but through eight weeks, the Colts are holding up their end of the bargain.
Indy's 15-13 come-from-behind home victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday propelled the team into the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture. Sure, it might be way too early to start talking postseason, but at 5-2 and leading the AFC South Division, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game is certainly within the Colts' sights.
"I just think we have tough-minded players who have a mindset of figuring out how to play winning football, and just believing in each other and believing in what we're doing, and trying to do the little things right," head coach Frank Reich told reporters Monday in his weekly conference call. "I think we're doing, for the most part, those little things that you need to do to win close games, and that's been a good formula for us."
Taking a page out of the 1995 team that came one play away from advancing to the Super Bowl, this version of the "Cardiac Colts" has gotten the job done to this point by coming out victorious in close games week after week.
In fact, the Colts on Sunday became the first team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to start a season with a 5-2 record and have all their games decided by seven points or fewer, according to FOX59/CBS4's Mike Chappell.
Tight end Jack Doyle, who has run the gamut in his seven seasons with the Colts — from advancing to the AFC Championship Game in 2014, to struggling through a four-win season three years later, to last year's improbable playoff run after a 1-5 start — said after Sunday's win over the Broncos that it's no surprise this year's team has been able to shut the door more often than not.
"I've been on teams here, a bad thing happens and we fold — thinking back to 2017 or whatever. But not this team, man," Doyle said. "It's a credit to our leaders, Frank, Jacoby (Brissett) and just the type of people they are first off. The players, the coach and it just – it can rally a team, man, and give you confidence. You want to play for those guys."
If the Colts can keep maintaining this pace, they can earn a first-round bye for the first time since the 2009 season, when they went 14-2 and advanced to Super Bowl XLIV as the AFC's No. 1 seed. Irsay knows first-hand just how important it is to get a top-two seed in the playoffs — something the Colts accomplished four times total during the Peyton Manning Era (1999, 2005, 2007 and 2009).
"You get the bye week – that is a huge advantage, a big advantage," Irsay said. "You guys know we got it in 2000 to 2010 multiple times, and we didn't always take advantage of it, but that's what you want to do."
This became crystal clear after a 41-0 Wild Card round road loss to the New York Jets back in the 2002 season. Irsay said he talked with then-general manager Bill Polian and head coach Tony Dungy about how brutal it can be for a team to have to win three games — usually away from home — just to get to the Super Bowl.
Irsay had similar chats with Reich and current general manager Chris Ballard after their road loss to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the playoffs earlier this year.
"'Hey we've got to get homefield advantage now. We've got to get off the road. We don't want to play on the road and be that fifth or sixth Wild Card team if we can,'" Irsay recalled from those conversations. "So that's a tall order. Most people say, 'Hey you've got to probably win at least 12 games.' And they're right. That's very difficult. We look at that, and quite frankly I think everyone aspires to win the Super Bowl going to training camp or you wouldn't even show up."
History has proven anything can happen over these next nine regular season games for the Colts. Since 1970, 263 teams have started with a 5-2 record; 72.2 percent of them, according to Pro Football Reference, ended up making the playoffs. Five of those teams ended up with a 14-2 record, while one of them, the 2001 San Diego Chargers, didn't win another game the rest of the season and finished at 5-11.
One thing's for sure: Reich and the Colts aren't even thinking about possible playoff seeding at this point. With their "1-0" approach and one-game-at-a-time mindset still the expectation internally, this Sunday's road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers remains their No. 1 priority.
"We know this for sure: that you can't take (the little things) for granted any week, against any opponent, anywhere," Reich said. "So we really need to stay focused on those little things that are helping us win close games."
If the season ended today, the AFC playoff picture would look like:
- New England Patriots (8-0)
- Indianapolis Colts (5-2)
- Baltimore Ravens (5-2)
- Kansas City Chiefs (5-3)
- Buffalo Bills (5-2)
- Houston Texans (5-3)
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, both at 4-4, would be No. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively.