INDIANAPOLIS – Last year, the Colts posted the NFL's worst record at 2-14.
In 2012, the Colts are 10-5 and have clinched the AFC's fifth playoff seed with one game to go.
The team can go no higher in the seedings, and it is unlikely that emotions could run any higher either for veterans on a proud franchise.
"Anybody outside our locker room who said the Indianapolis Colts would make the playoffs, I think they'd being lying now if they claimed it," said Antoine Bethea after the club's 20-13 victory at Kansas City. "The guys in the locker room, we stuck by each other week in and week out. It paid dividends. Everyone hung together, and we played well."
Bethea was a rookie in 2006 when the Colts won Super Bowl XLI. He went back three years later for Super Bowl XLIV. He, Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney and Adam Vinatieri never had experienced a non-playoff year with Indianapolis, until last year's bitter season.
Prior to that, double-digit victory seasons and playoff spots were earned annually. Now, they are old hands with new faces for teammates, and they are heading beyond the regular season again.
"At the beginning of the year, there were a new faces, a lot of old faces leaving and there were a lot of people counting this team out," said Bethea to Colts Radio. "For what this team did and going to the playoffs after a 2-14 season (in 2011) shows how much pride we have in this organization and how the guys in this locker room are."
Indianapolis won seven games with fourth-quarter comebacks. It played gutty when needed. While matters were not always perfect, plays were made when they needed to be made.
Kansas City rushed for 352 yards Sunday. A fourth-and-one attempt from the Indianapolis 27 with 10:21 to go was stuffed, and Indianapolis used the momentum to notch the winning score.
Kansas City out-gained the Colts, 507-288. They out-rushed Indianapolis by 262 yards. They held the ball almost five minutes longer and six more first downs than the Colts – but Indianapolis won.
It has been a gritty, resilient team that has found ways to win all year. The feeling ranks high for Bethea, who has seen a number of wonderful moments in seven years.
"It might be number two, after the Super Bowl win just because of the whole situation," said Bethea. "We came off last year, this year with the emotion of Coach Pagano (being ill) and with a lot of young players being able to experience the playoffs for the first time."
Many times, accomplishments start with mindsets. Bethea thinks that is the case for a team that questioned outsiders who deep-sixed aspirations before the season started.
"This is a team that asked, 'Why not? Why can't we be here? What's stopping us?' The only thing stopping us is ourselves," said Bethea. "We haven't allowed that to happen."
Colts players have battled all season, just as their head coach, Chuck Pagano, has in fighting leukemia. Bethea thinks the situation has helped the team.
"I think it carried us along the way. Chuck was our leader," said Bethea. "When we got the news he had leukemia, we wanted to do anything in our power to make sure that he was on the sideline and to continue. We wanted extra games so he could coach. Now, we're here. I'm pretty sure he's excited."
It could be that Pagano returns on Monday, Christmas Eve. If so, his return will be a welcomed sight to a bunch of battlers.
"It's an early Christmas present. This is something for the whole team. We look forward to seeing him in the meeting room," said Bethea.