INDIANAPOLIS — "Remember this from early training camp?" Frank Reich asked his team as it gathered around him in the Nissan Stadium locker room.
Reich held up a piece of paper with "#32" printed on it in big block letters.
"That's where they had us ranked, right?" Reich asked.
The Colts had just gone on the road to defeat the Tennessee Titans, 33-17, in a win-or-go-home Week 17 divisional matchup to earn a spot in the postseason. In doing so, Indianapolis became just the third team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to rebound and make the playoffs after starting the season with a 1-5 record.
"We were 1-5. On the brink, right?" Reich said that night in Nashville. "What people didn't see from the outside is what we saw from the inside: the trust; the toughness; getting better every day. And the teamwork — unselfish; getting after it."
Five months later, league experts are singing a different tune when it comes to the Colts. Just look at the various offseason power rankings:
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco has the Colts at 10th — and that's low compared to others. NFL.com's Elliot Harrison? Fifth. ESPN.com? Fifth. USA TODAY? Fourth. NBC Sports' Peter King? Third.
Heck, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. says the Colts' 2019 NFL Draft haul was so good they're now his favorites to make the Super Bowl out of the AFC.
Last season, the Colts took the underdog mentality and ran with it to claim victories in nine of their final 10 regular season games before knocking off the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
Underdogs no more, however, the Colts this time have to stay just as focused despite raised expectations from the outside.
"Really the challenge this year will be keeping the same approach, the 1-0 approach," Reich said recently. "(Keep) getting better every day, not being complacent in any way. Not falling into the trap of thinking, 'We are supposed to be this and that.' We did nothing; we got to go prove it every day and that should be our mentality."
Reich will depend upon his team leaders to push those points home.
Quarterback Andrew Luck certainly knows about year-to-year volatility in the NFL. In 2014, the Colts advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game, leading many experts to label Indy as Super Bowl favorites the following season. After finishing 8-8 in 2015, however, the Colts had failed to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"I'd say the expectations in the building are that you improve," Luck said. "You have to improve and that's about the process and getting the most out of yourself and the most out of each other. So that has not changed and I doubt that will ever change with the group of men that we have in this building. So certainly we have goals and the goals are the same as last year. You want to win a Super Bowl. You want to win your division. You want to make it to the playoffs. It's about what we are doing today to improve. So that will stay the same every day."
Reich says he certainly gets the outside noise for his team entering the 2019 season — "you almost have to think that, given the trajectory, given the age of the team, given it's the second year," he said — but knows how important this year will be if the Colts want to be contending for titles every year for the foreseeable future.
That's why staying balanced — not getting too high or too low — is so critical.
"There's no question that there's this raised expectation," Reich said. "We can talk forever about how, 'Hey, it's a whole new year, gotta start fresh.' Everybody in the world (is) thinking we're gonna go further than we went last year.
"We get in our building, we get in the meeting room and we keep the same mindset we had last year. And that mindset works," he continued. "I know everybody knows that. And that's not gonna change. So one of the things as a coach, you find ways to continually reemphasize that same mindset. And you really count on the players to keep that same mindset. And that's what separates the men from the boys, as far as coaching is concerned. I really do think that. That's why it's so hard to maintain being at the top all the time."
The Indianapolis Colts offensive and defensive lineman continue to compete against one and other as OTA practices start back up for Week 2.