INDIANAPOLIS –Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians will lead the Colts into Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday in a game that opens the final quarter of what so far has been a very memorable season.
Indianapolis 8-4, hosts Tennessee, 4-8, the fifth time in six seasons the division foes have met in the last quarter of regular season action.
It has been a season of note for the Colts to this point, and Sunday's game is another chance for the club to forward its playoff chances.
Indianapolis took a step in the right direction with a compelling 35-33 win last Sunday at Detroit, a game the Colts trailed for all but five minutes.
The Colts last week had scoring drives of 85 and 75 yards in the last four minutes to erase a 33-21 deficit. Both drives ended with touchdown passes by quarterback Andrew Luck, with the final one, a 14-yarder to wide receiver Donnie Avery, coming as time expired.
"Some teams find ways to win, others don't. Ours (does)," said Arians last Sunday. "(I) can't be prouder of the game, another team victory. It's never (over) till the last tick goes off the clock.
"We found a way to win a big ballgame on the road against a very quality opponent. (I) don't care about the stats. The only stat that matters is No. 8 (wins). We've got a fighting bunch of guys, and we've got a fighting coach at home."
Arians moved his interim record to 7-2 while subbing for Head Coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano left the club after three games to battle leukemia, and it is hoped he can return for the December 30 finale against Houston.
Pagano has instilled a fighting spirit that has impacted the Colts dramatically. He joined the team after a sobering 2-14 season and directed the team through a rigorous off-season and training camp, with coaches demanding results regardless of experience.
With outside voices tamping down expectations, Pagano helped ramp up the feelings internally. The bar was set high, and it was met early.
Pagano led the team to a 1-2 start before departing to fight leukemia. Arians stepped in and has been at the forefront of perpetuating Pagano's message to an extremely close-knit bunch.
"Each game has become more important. Our goal is in sight," said Arians. "As long as we stay within the moment, we'll be playing when he comes back. That has always been our goal since he got sick, to extend the season.
"His footprints and handprints are all over this team. It's his team. We all feel very good that we're in a position now to achieve that goal, if we just stay in the moment. (Players) love Chuck, what he means and what he stands for. I kind of preach it every week, so we're never going to forget. I think that's what's bonded our football team."
Two leaders, Dwight Freeney and Andrew Luck, one older and one new, have the same observation on Pagano and why the team has rallied.
"It's really banding together and relying on each other," said Freeney. "Unfortunately, circumstances caused this. The good thing about it is it causes everybody to get together, and that's very important. Guys, we're real close this year, (closer) than most years around here, even though historically we've had a close-knit team. That's kind of been the culture of the Colts around here. Obviously, unfortunate circumstances, but it brings guys together."
"Coach built a great foundation before he had to take this leave," said Luck. "I think a big focus of ours is making sure we stay on that same path. I think every week, win or loss, (we're) forging character, if you will, in trying to be that team he wants us to be."
Last week's win at Detroit was one that showed the character of the team.
After holding a brief 7-3 first-quarter lead, Detroit assumed a 17-7 edge and led until the final second bled off the clock.
The Colts were down 23-14 at halftime and after a quick touchdown to start the second half, struggles ensued. The Indianapolis offense gained one first down over four drives, then a fifth produced the third interception of the game.
Detroit pounded away with quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The duo teamed for 13 completions and 171 yards, including a 46-yard scoring play to put Detroit up 30-21 with two seconds left in the third quarter.
The Indianapolis defense battled to the gun as well, forcing three Detroit punts in the last quarter, while holding the Lions to a fourth field goal after a 67-yard run penetrated deep into Colts territory.
Indianapolis forced a punt from its 45 and took possession with 4:02 left. The ensuing drive covered 85 yards and ended with a 42-yard strike from Luck to wide receiver LaVon Brazill with 2:39 left.
Trailing 33-28, the defense forced a punt from midfield with 1:14 left, and the club used that possession (without timeouts) to move for the winning score.
Luck hit 24-of-54 passes for 391 yards and a club rookie record four touchdowns. The scoring strike to Avery marked the first time since 1990 the Colts won a game on the last play of regulation with a touchdown.
"I don't know, maybe some coolant," said tight end Dwayne Allen of what courses through Luck's veins. "He has something that keeps him cool, calm and collected. Pressure situations, it amazes me what he can do. I've never been around a quarterback with that amount of resilience to play the game he plays. He goes through the ups and downs of the rollercoaster, then still be able to take the deep breath, tell everyone to shut up in the huddle and, 'Let's go win this.' "
The AFC playoff chase has taken a definite shape as four games remain. Houston is 11-1 and has clinched a berth, but not the division. New England (9-3) and Denver (10-3) have won their respective divisions, while Baltimore (9-3) is trailed in the AFC North by Pittsburgh (7-5) and Cincinnati (7-5).
The Bengals and Steelers are the teams in closest pursuit of Indianapolis. Three other AFC teams are at 5-7 – Miami, Buffalo and the New York Jets.
Indianapolis has five victories this season in the fourth quarter or overtime – 23-20 over Minnesota on September 16, 30-27 over Green Bay on October 7, 19-13 in overtime at Tennessee on October 28, 23-20 over Miami on November 4 and last Sunday.
The team now is 7-1 in games decided by one score.
"Yeah, we are, man. We are," said wide receiver Reggie Wayne. "That's Coach Pagano from day one, just instilling and telling us just to keep fighting, keep fighting, keep playing. Guys really don't know any better. We just know just to go out there, tell us to run into a brick wall, we're going to run into a brick wall.
"Guys just never gave up. It was kind of shocking because on that last drive, (the) defense came off the field and they were saying, 'Man, we're about to win this, we're about to win this.'
"It just goes to show you how this team is, how resilient we are. Guys just keep playing and it was a good one."
Arians has led Pagano's charge. He is seeing others follow.
"Our guys are fighters, man," said Arians. "They're resilient. They don't quit. They believe next man up. Guys keep stepping up, offensively, defensively. We find a way to win."