INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts have not lived this season entirely on the edge, though they have thrived in the fourth quarter – repeatedly.
On Sunday at Kansas City, the Colts drove 73 yards in the fourth quarter of a tie game and scored a playoff berth-clinching touchdown when Andrew Luck teamed with Reggie Wayne as the Colts won, 20-13.
It marked the seventh time this year Luck and the Colts rallied with a last-period comeback victory, tying an NFL record that was accomplished six other times. The Colts in 1999 and 2009 pulled the same late heroics.
Bruce Arians, who directed his NFL record-tying ninth win as an interim coach, said all year the Colts would not have wide victory margins.
He also felt strongly the team could win its share of games. He wanted it to do so when Head Coach Chuck Pagano left after three games to battle leukemia.
With Pagano hopefully returning Monday, the goal of extending the season means the mission is accomplished.
"It really is quite a team," said Arians to Colts Radio. "I can't say enough about the guys in the locker room, mission accomplished. We set out to extend this season for Chuck. Now he can come back Monday and not be in the stressful time that we're in. He can get back into the flow of things at his pace."
Arians, 9-3 for Pagano, took no time to reflect on tying Hamp Pool (Rams, 1952) and Wally Lemm (Oilers, 1961) for the most wins by an interim coach, focusing instead on the team.
It was one that competed most of the season with less than 20 players who had been with the team previously and one that clinched the AFC's fifth seed Sunday with 13 performers on injured reserve.
"It means the world to me. Our football team delivered. It's every guy on the team. It's a team (effort)," said Arians. "That's what these kids do every week.
"When you look at the number of guys on injured reserve, the number of guys who got injured in this game and who were out there playing, guys who showed up three weeks ago, just playing their tails off for a common cause, that being Chuck. The whole thing was for him. It's mission accomplished."
In reaching 10-5, the Colts joined the 2008 Dolphins as the only teams to win 10 or more games after losing 14 or more the previous season. Indianapolis joined that Miami team and the 1982 Patriots on the list of teams to make the playoffs one year after going 2-14 or worse.
The Colts were 2-14 in 2011. They have posted an eight-game turnaround. Twice the team has had one-season eight-game improvements – from 2-12 in 1974 to 10-4 in 1975 and from 1-15 in 1991 to 9-7 in 1992.
Those are tied for the seventh-best one-year jumps in NFL history. The 1999 Colts and 2008 Dolphins share the NFL mark with a one-year 10-game jump. The Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3.
Indianapolis has become only the fourth team to win as many as 10 games after a season of two or fewer victories (Miami, 1-15 in 2007 and 11-5 in 2008; Colts 2-12 in 1974 and 10-4 in 1975; Oakland 1-13 in 1962 and 10-4 in 1963).
The Colts scored a defensive touchdown at Kansas City to start the game and never settled into a true offensive rhythm in the first half. The team had seven first downs and 155 net yards and while Kansas City had 245, Indianapolis owned a 13-3 lead.
Kansas City's 352 rushing yards were triggered on the first play of the second half when Jamaal Charles burst 86 yards yards, the longest scoring run surrendered in franchise history. Charles had 226 yards and Peyton Hillis and 101, only the eighth time the Colts ever have yielded two 100-yard rushers in the same game.
Still, the Indianapolis defense made a fourth-and-one stop to set up the game-winning drive. It also forced two red zone turnovers in addition to the scoring interception return, giving the team a much-needed plus-three ratio.
This marked the club's third turnover-free game of the year. It also did it in victories over Miami and Minnesota.
Luck hit 17-of-35 passes for 205 yards, including five to Wayne for 81 yards. Their seven-yard scoring play on third down with 4:08 left decided the game. Wayne topped 100 receptions for a club record-tying fourth time, while Luck (4,183) set the league rookie passing record.
"That drive was huge," said Arians. "It was a big third-down conversion. We were able to keep them in a sub-defense. We had struggled all day. We've been struggling for a little bit of time, a young offense.
"Our defense came up with some huge plays. Turnover ratio was going to be huge in this game, we knew it. Our defense got three of them. Yardage doesn't mean a dag-gone thing, it's the scoreboard."
Arians has presided over the cardiac finishes as he appears ready to turn the reins back to Pagano, hopefully Monday. When it does happen, Pagano will find a team as resilient as he has been.
"That's the way it's been all year. Whenever we've had to do something, we've done it," said Arians. "Offensively, that drive was big after struggling with a one-for-13 (passing) stretch. When we had to have it, guys stepped in and made big plays."