NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Forget making the playoffs; before the 2018 season began, many outsiders thought the Indianapolis Colts would struggle to even sniff .500. New coach, new roster, questions about quarterback Andrew Luck's health.
After the team's 1-5 start to the season, maybe those naysayers would be proven right.
However, after their 33-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, the Colts completed their improbable season turnaround to finish 10-6 and punch their ticket to the playoffs, becoming just the third team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to make the postseason after a 1-5 start.
The Colts join the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals and 2015 Kansas City Chiefs in this distinctive club; both of their predecessors made it to, but ultimately fell, in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Behind an offense led by the likely Comeback Player of the Year and an MVP candidate in Andrew Luck, a defense with the potential Defensive Rookie of the Year in linebacker Darius Leonard, coached by perhaps the league's Coach of the Year in Frank Reich and the potential Executive of the Year who brought it all together in general manager Chris Ballard, the Colts are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
"To do what we just did is a pretty good feeling, pretty good feeling," Reich told reporters after the game. "To be 1-5 and to do something that only two teams have done in the history of this league, to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start is quite an accomplishment. It's a real credit to the guys."
Teams measure segments of the season into quarters — 16 games in a season, so four even quarters. The Colts came out a little slow from the gate, going 1-3. Their first win was against a tough-looking Washington Redskins squad, but you could make an argument that the Colts should have won the other three games and been 4-0 as well. That included one matchup against the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles as well as the eventual AFC South champion Houston Texans.
Sitting at 1-3, the Colts faced a pivotal point of the season, but they would drop the next two to the New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football and then New York Jets, respectively, to fall to 1-5.
There is where the real crossroads were laid.
The Colts looked themselves in the mirror, pointed out that the way the season was developing was unacceptable, and then that's when things turned around. From there, the Colts became one of the hottest teams in football.
From Oct. 21 through to Sunday's Week 17 victory in Nashville, the Colts would only drop one game — a defensive struggle to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 6-0.
No longer are the Colts a team that need their franchise quarterback to put it on his shoulders; this Indy team is getting complete team efforts, especially from its stifling defense, which led the entire NFL in points allowed since Week 7.
"We talked about there's three things: there's trust, there's toughness, and there's team. That's what the foundation is, that's what the culture is, that's what the belief is, and those aren't just words," Reich said Sunday. "We lived that this year. We lived it, and we're not done yet. We're in the hunt. This is where we wanted to go, but we've got another mountain to climb.
"The other big thing was we talked about getting better — this was a big deal — we were 1-3 in the first quarter of the season, we were 2-2 in the second quarter, we were 3-1 in the third, and then as we started the fourth quarter, we said, 'Man, we've been talking about getting one percent better the whole year. It's only fitting that we go 4-0 in the last quarter.'" Reich said. "That was the vision, that's what we talked about, that's what the goal was, and that's what we did to make it into the playoffs. So, really happy and proud of the guys for getting that done."
Like any team, the Colts had to overcome some adversity to get into the postseason. Although they were lucky enough to not have to deal with many back-breaking season-ending injuries, they did have critical players like Jack Doyle, Clayton Geathers, Malik Hooker, T.Y. Hilton and Ryan Kelly miss a combined 22 games.
Regardless, the Colts stuck to the all-too-familiar "next man up" mantra and kept themselves improving one percent every day.
"We're excited. I'm so proud of the guys on this team," Luck said following Sunday's win. "I sincerely love being on this team. I really enjoy the guys in that locker room, the coaches, the help, everybody. It's a great group of guys. You can't do it without a strong locker room. You can't. It's what this league's about. Chris (Ballard) put a great group together. Frank leading the charge — awesome.
"We've been in playoff mode for a long time now. We really have," Luck continued "I honestly think that helps. It helps us when we're in a quote-unquote 'win and in' situation. Things don't change this weekend now. It's the same. So, excited, very happy, and certainly proud to be a Colt."