INDIANAPOLIS –The NFL schedule-makers were kind to the Colts for the first half of the season.
Sunday, Indianapolis, 4-3, hosts Miami, 4-3, and the Colts are playing their fifth home game as the season reaches its mid-point.
With a 3-1 mark, the Colts have been one of the league's most successful home teams, and they have done so in thrilling fashion for their fans.
Indianapolis beat Minnesota, 23-20, on September 16 and Green Bay, 30-27, on October 7 with a field goal and touchdown, respectively, in the waning seconds. The club also fell in the final minute to Jacksonville on September 23, 22-17.
Against Cleveland two weeks ago, Indianapolis opened with two touchdowns and led at the half by eight points in eventually winning, 17-13. A defensive stand at its 39 in the final two minutes also tested the home crowd's collective blood pressure.
The Colts, on a two-game winning streak, enter Sunday's game after a 19-13 overtime victory last week at Tennessee. Miami took its third straight game with a 30-9 victory last week at the New York Jets.
The Colts return home to keep fighting in a competitive AFC field. Indianapolis stands as one of eight conference teams with at least four wins. Houston (6-1), New England (5-3), Baltimore (5-2) and Denver (4-3) lead the divisions. Pittsburgh and Miami join the Colts at 4-3. San Diego won on Thursday to move to 4-4.
There are five conference teams with three victories.
Indianapolis needs to take care of divisional and conference matters. The Colts are 2-2 in the AFC. Houston has yet to lose in the conference. New England and Baltimore are 4-1. Miami and Denver are 3-2, while Pittsburgh is 2-3.
The stretch run of the season is approaching.
As Indianapolis tries to extend its home mark to 4-1, it will be doing so against a team with which it shared a division for 32 seasons.
The Colts and Dolphins resided in the AFC East from 1970 to 2001 before Realignment thrust Indianapolis into the AFC South.
Once one of the more popular teams that visited on an annual basis, Miami has played in Indianapolis but twice since the teams were split up as divisional foes. Miami visited the Colts in 2002, then returned in 2006. The game in 2006 was the regular-season finale, an outing the Colts won, 27-22, before embarking on a four-game playoff run that ended with a 29-17 victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI in the Dolphins' home park.
This will be Miami's first trip to Lucas Oil Stadium. Across the street, the Dolphins were able to win 13 of 20 battles with the Colts in the Hoosier/RCA Dome.
Though the Colts and Dolphins have met only four times since splitting divisions, the franchises have met on 68 previous occasions in regular season action. The only team the Colts have met more often in league play than Miami is New England (72 times).
These teams last met on September 21, 2009, with the Colts earning a 27-23 victory. Indianapolis returned to Sun Life Stadium at the end of that season in reaching Super Bowl XLIV.
In a dramatically-changing league, only 10 players from the Colts active roster remain from the last time these teams met – Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea, Adam Vinatieri, Antonio Johnson, Donald Brown, Fili Moala, Jerraud Powers and Pat McAfee. A total of 14 Dolphins from that game remain on the active roster.
Among the transitions for both clubs since then are head coaches and starting quarterbacks.
Chuck Pagano was named the Colts' head coach this past January. Pagano is absent from the team with an illness and Bruce Arians is the interim leader.
Joe Philbin is in his first year at the Miami helm. Philbin became the ninth head coach in Dolphins history on January 20 of this year, five days before Pagano was tabbed by Indianapolis.
The clubs both addressed the quarterback position in the draft, with Indianapolis taking Andrew Luck with the first overall pick and Miami selecting Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill in the eighth spot.
Both have started all season. Luck has hit 160-of-288 passes for 1,971 yards, with eight touchdowns and interceptions. Luck was the sixth Colts rookie quarterback ever to start on opening day, joining George Shaw (1955), Bert Jones (1973), Mike Pagel (1982), Jeff George (1990) and Manning (1998).
Tannehill, who was hurt last week at New York, has hit 120-of-203 passes for 1,472 yards, with four touchdowns and six interceptions. Tannehill was the first rookie quarterback to start a Miami opener. Other prominent Miami rookies to play were Bob Griese (1967), David Woodley (1980) and Dan Marino (1983).
Indianapolis snapped a 10-game road losing streak in winning last Sunday at Tennessee. The Colts had an 80-yard, last-chance-in-regulation drive to tie the contest, then they won it with a drive of the same length after winning the overtime coin flip.
While Indianapolis is four games improved from last year's record at this time and in possession of twice as many victories as accomplished over 2011's 16 games, Arians has not given much thought to what has been accomplished.
"I think we are behind schedule," said Arians. "We gave one game away that we should have in our pocket. We are just starting to scratch the surface of how good we can become if we all believe it. I think we'll show up in practice Wednesday with a lot of enthusiasm."
Arians was referring to the home setback to Jacksonville where the Colts grabbed the lead in the final minute, but gave up an 80-yard pass play in falling.
Under Pagano this spring, players were given shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Build the Monster." It was an effort termed "reloading," not "rebuilding," and players took to the challenge.
Linebacker Pat Angerer has returned to play in the last two games, and he wants the progress to continue. Angerer was the leading tackler on last year's 2-14 unit.
"We got four more wins than everyone thought we would have, so that's good," said Angerer. "We always knew we could be a good football team. We are getting there. We are still not there yet but with a little improvement here and there, we can be alright."
Defensive end Cory Redding joined Indianapolis from Baltimore quickly after Pagano's arrival. A component in a few stingy Ravens defenses, Redding has been a vital and vocal cog with the Colts.
"If we were to believe all of the writers and all of the naysayers, we would be 0-5 or 0-7 right now," said Redding. "The men in this locker room are going to fight every week. We are going to go out there and play great team ball, and we got one on the road. Tough environment, hostile environment, but we didn't break. We might have bent a little bit, but we didn't break."
Luck has taken every offensive snap and has had a major hand in the club's successes. He became the first NFL rookie quarterback since 1971 to lead a September fourth-quarter comeback win in the club's week two triumph over the Vikings.
After the Green Bay win, Luck became the first NFL rookie to pass for 1,200 yards (1,208) and record at least two wins in his team's first four games. After the Cleveland win, he was the first NFL rookie with 1,500 passing yards (1,674) and three wins in a team's first six games.
Following the Tennessee win, Luck claimed the highest winning percentage (.571) by a rookie quarterback who was a top overall pick through week eight in NFL history. With three rushing scores in addition to his passing totals, Luck is focused only on weekly increments.
"I don't know. I'm just trying to take it week-by-week," said Luck when asked if the team were where he thought it should be. "I don't think we've earned the right to look ahead and say we need to be here. Take it week-by-week, try and stack wins together and at the end of the year if we have enough wins to be in the playoffs, that'll be great and go from there."