INDIANAPOLIS — Some people point to the Indianapolis Colts' "1-0" mindset and trace its origins back to Week 7, when the team headed into its game against the Buffalo Bills with a 1-5 record and in desperate need of a victory to somehow begin salvaging its season.
So, sure, here we are two months later, and the Colts are the hottest team in football, having earned wins in nine of their last 10 games to push their way into the playoffs.
As it turns out, that game against the Bills, a 37-5 all-around drubbing by the Colts, was just one of many critical points along the way for an Indianapolis team that has used the "1-0" mantra — or, at the very least, a working definition of it — for the better part of nine months now.
"Maybe I am blind, but I felt like it took hold from the beginning," Colts head coach Frank Reich said last week. "(And) even when we were going through that rough spell I still believed that we knew we were getting better, even though we weren't seeing the results."
Trust, toughness, teamwork
Hired in March to be the Colts' new head coach, Reich didn't have much time at all to hire his own coaching staff, let alone throw together his team's offseason workout plans.
But there he was, on April 9, less than a month after his hiring, standing in the Colts' amphitheater, addressing his team for the very first time to kick off the offseason workout program.
Reich isn't one for theatrics, but he wanted to lay down the basics for what he expected moving forward: trust, toughness and teamwork.
None of those pillars were new to anybody in the room; football coaches at all levels have been spewing them for decades. But it was the second word, toughness, that really drove home the point that Reich's Colts teams weren't going accept anything other than daily improvement — or, as Reich likes to put it, "getting one percent better every day."
"Here's just a working definition that we can work with; that we together can work with, that toughness is this: it's a relentless drive to get better every day. And it's an obsession to finish," Reich told his team that day. "I'm looking for tough players, I'm looking for tough coaches; I just want to see who's trying to get better every day."
Reich added "there is no room for complacency — there is no room for coasting" in his locker room.
"We know that can't happen in this business," he said. "And so that's what we're going to be about."
The buy-in from the Colts players began that very moment.
They noticed the energy from the coaching staff as they played music and gave pop quizzes during positional meetings. They noticed the tempo in offseason practices was kicked up a few notches. They noticed in training camp that padded practices were the norm — and not the exception.
"The everyday grind of practice and being in pads is tough, but it's just about getting better," center Ryan Kelly told reporters on Aug. 13, as the team began its third and final full week of camp. "You don't want to let the guy next to you down. If you guys are both in this stuff together then whatever, you make it work, and you just keep going."
Reich and the Colts could talk about being tougher until they were blue in the face, but what really matters is how the team performs on gameday.
And through six weeks of the regular season, at 1-5, Indianapolis had a share of the worst record in the NFL.
The truth of the matter was that injuries had really taken a toll; starters at left tackle, running back, tight end, wide receiver, defensive line and safety had already missed significant time. The Colts also had one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, and it was obvious at times that a talented rookie class was learning on the fly.
None of that mattered to this locker room, however. How many other teams were dealing with the exact same thing?
The silver lining? Well, there were a few. Key injured guys like left tackle Anthony Castonzo, running back Marlon Mack, tight end Jack Doyle, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, defensive tackle/end Denico Autry and safety Clayton Geathers were either just getting back or would be back soon. The schedule was also in the Colts' favor, as the team still had five divisional matchups and six home games the rest of the way.
But, perhaps most importantly, Reich's charge to his team was far from stale.
"It's very exciting, just knowing you got another opportunity to go out and get a win," rookie linebacker Darius Leonard said Oct. 16, as the team began preparations for its Week 7 home matchup against the Bills. "We're just looking forward to this weekend. Hopefully we will be 1-0 after this week."
The Colts wouldn't just be 1-0 later that week against the Bills. They'd be 1-0 the next week against the Oakland Raiders. After the bye week, they'd be 1-0 against the Jacksonville Jaguars; 1-0 against the Tennessee Titans and 1-0 against the Miami Dolphins.
The Colts, now at 6-5 thanks to a five-game winning streak, had stormed back into relevancy in the early-developing AFC playoff picture. They got tripped up the following week on the road in a 6-0 loss to the Jaguars, but even at 6-6, Reich's group remained a confident bunch.
But any loss the rest of the way would really put a dent in their hopes of making the postseason, so every game moving forward was treated like a playoff matchup.
Indianapolis went on the road and defeated the Texans, then winners of nine straight, 24-21. The next week? They once again shut down the hottest team in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys, who had won five in a row, in a 23-0 shutout victory at Lucas Oil Stadium. And after a slow start the following week against the New York Giants, the Colts would escape with a 28-27 win.
After each victory, Reich would repeat to his team the importance of staying in that 1-0 mindset. Sure, 1-5 had turned into 9-6 and the Colts this time were the hottest team in the league. They also had a Most Valuable Player candidate at quarterback in Andrew Luck, one of the top offensive lines in football and a surging defense led by a leading candidate for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award in Leonard.
But all of that wouldn't matter if the Colts were sitting on their couches once the postseason came rolling around. So they continued focusing on what they could control.
"I think in a sense it's always been in our hands," Luck said. "It's never been, 'Oh, we don't control this or something with this team or that team.' We haven't played that game I think as a team."
PHOTOS: Colts Titans 2018 - BEHIND THE SCENES
Win and you're in
The good news for the Colts heading into the final week of the regular season? A win and you're guaranteed your first postseason appearance since the 2014 season.
The bad news? They were going on the road to take on a scrappy division opponent facing the exact same "win-and-you're-in" scenario.
Sure, the Colts had easily taken care of the Titans, 38-10, back in Week 11 at Lucas Oil Stadium. But now with the stakes so high, and both teams playing their best football of the season, anything could happen this time around. To add to the hype, the game was flexed to primetime and Sunday Night Football so that a national audience could properly take this one in.
Playing in just their second primetime matchup of the season — the Colts had fallen to the New England Patriots, 38-24, back in Week 5 on Thursday Night Football — the Indy veterans and rookies alike were simply excited for the opportunity to survive and advance this time around.
"It's pretty awesome the fact that we kind of get to start the playoffs a week early," Castonzo said two days before the Titans game. "It's win or go home and we recognize that. I mean it really has been for the last three weeks, but I think the young guys understand.
"Like I said, we've been kind of win-or-go-home here for a while. It's nothing new to this team and the young guys have really been in that position already."
Indy was accordingly greeted with an electric atmosphere at kickoff Sunday night at Nissan Stadium, where several Colts fans had also taken the trip down Interstate 65 to provide their support. By midway through the second quarter, however, the Colts had done everything they could to quiet the home crowd, having embarked on two long touchdown-scoring drives to take a commanding 14-0 lead.
The Titans weren't going down without a fight, however, and by halftime, they had cut the lead to seven, 17-10.
The score was 24-17 by the end of the third quarter, and the Titans had the ball and were looking to push towards a potential game-tying touchdown drive.
But Kenny Moore II had other plans.
Moore II, a second-year cornerback signed as an undrafted college free agent last year (and the perfect embodiment of "toughness" to the Colts and Reich), stepped in front of a Blaine Gabbert pass near midfield, bringing in his team-best third interception on the season with 9:17 remaining in the game.
More than five minutes later, Adam Vinatieri knocked in a 25-yard field goal, and the Colts' lead was back to a comfortable 10 points. Marlon Mack would then add some insurance with an eight-yard touchdown run, and Leonard would put the seal on a huge victory with an interception on the Titans' final drive, closing out a 33-17 Colts win.
'We did it'
Before embarking on a jubilant plane ride home, Reich addressed his team in the Nissan Stadium locker room.
His Colts had just become the third team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to make the postseason after starting out the year with a 1-5 record. And as for "getting one percent better every day?" Just check out the schedule: 1-3 in the first quarter of the season, 2-2 in the second quarter, 3-1 in the third quarter and 4-0 in the fourth quarter.
"We talked about early on, we said one of the greatest things that we could do when we walk into this locker room together is look at each other and say these three words: 'We did it,'" Reich said. "Hey — 1-5, right? We were 1-5. On the brink, right?
"But what people didn't see, right, what they didn't see from the outside, is what we saw from the inside, right? The trust. The toughness, right? Gettin' better every day. And the team, men. The teamwork. Unselfish, gettin' after it. They didn't see that," Reich continued. "And men, we did it."
The Colts knew this feeling of accomplishment could only be temporary — after all, their win against the Titans set up a Wild Card round meeting on the road against the Texans just six days later.
But, quite frankly, an actual playoff game, at this point, might just feel a little bit more natural to a team that had essentially been on the ropes for the final 11 weeks of the regular season — and just kept swinging.
"As I have alluded to and some players have alluded to, we've been in this – for lack of a better word – 'playoff' mode for a while, kind of with our backs against the wall," Reich said on Monday. "So I am trusting the process that has been established, the leadership of the players and the focus and the vision of what we are trying to do. That focus and vision is on getting better every day and then beating the next opponent. That is all that really matters. That's the mindset we've been in. That's the mindset we need to maintain."