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Practice Notebook: Colts reflect on growth since Week 2 matchup against Houston Texans

This season, the Colts have overcome a 3-5 start to the season, a flurry of injuries and roster turnover to be one win away from securing a playoff spot.

Colts vs. Texans W2

While the new year is the time for people to determine their resolutions and assess their goals for the next 12 months, it is also an opportunity to look back at the areas of growth one had the previous year.

In the case of the Colts, those 2023 lessons will be especially important as they prepare for this Saturday's pivotal game against the Houston Texans.

If they win this game, they will be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2020. Then, if the Jacksonville Jaguars lose to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon, the Colts will clinch their first AFC South title since 2014.

If they lose, their season is over.

Though the Colts have already proven that they can beat the Texans, doing so in Week 2 with a convincing 31-20 outing, that game was 107 days ago.

In that time, both teams have grown from young upstarts led by first-year head coaches to legitimate playoff contenders.

"Yeah, they're [Houston] completely different," head coach Steichen said. "Obviously, I mentioned this early on in the season – you kind of find out about who you are in the middle of the season. Teams change, teams kind of find their identity on who they are. Houston is playing really good football right now and it's going to be a heck of a challenge for us come Saturday night."

After starting the season 0-2, the Texans have gone 9-5 in their next 14 games. Quarterback C.J. Stroud has established himself as one of the top rookies in the NFL and is ninth in the league with 3,844 passing yards.

Defensively, they boast one of the best young cores in the NFL. Their edge-rushing duo of Jonathan Greenard and Will Anderson Jr. have combined for 19.5 sacks. Second-year cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.'s five interceptions are tied for the fourth most of any player.

As for the Colts, they've been on an impressive stretch as well. After losing three straight games and sitting at 3-5 in Week 8, they have won six of their next nine games.

"It speaks to the resiliency," quarterback Gardner Minshew II said. "I think everybody gets - you can kind of ride the wave a little bit in this league. I think the narratives get blown out of proportion week after week. But, you just got to trust what you do, trust how you prepare and I think we've done a good job of that."

After losing rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson to a right shoulder injury in Week 5, the team could have wilted and faded into the background. Instead, Minshew stepped up in his absence and has admirably led the team each week.

"I think, I'm not sure if this is right or wrong, but he gives a team hope," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "When he plays and he goes in there and makes plays, it's like, 'Woah, woah, woah, woah, woah – we have a chance.' When he first came in it's not, 'We lost our quarterback. Oh boy, this is going to be a struggle.' When he came in, he made plays and I think it gave the team that hope that, 'Wait a minute, we have a chance here now with this guy. He makes plays. He can get us out of difficult situations and something good truly is going to happen when he is in there."

Even with injuries keeping playmakers like Jonathan Taylor, Zack Moss and Michael Pittman Jr. off the field for varying amounts of time, the offense still has been one of the NFL's most consistent. With an average of 23.6 points per game, they rank 10th in the NFL and have the highest scoring output of any AFC South team.

On the opposite side of the ball, the defense has made historic strides this season. With 47 sacks through 16 weeks, the team set a new franchise record in the category.

That fact is all the more impressive considering the amount of personnel turnover they've undergone since Week 1. Though injuries in their secondary have forced young players like Jaylon Jones, JuJu Brents and Nick Cross into the fire, the biggest change was the team's decision to waive former All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard in November.

During these ever-evolving times, linebacker Zaire Franklin said this is when he and the other leaders of the unit have had to step up the most.

"For us, we always just trust each other," Franklin said. "I feel like for us, it's just next man up. That's kind of what it's felt like and like I said, we just had great leadership from DeForest [Buckner] and Grove, Kenny and myself. I feel like no matter what's really happened, whether it's guys coming out, guys leaving the building, new guys coming in and we're depending on them - everybody [has] just taken ownership of their position group, taking ownership of the defense."

So, when thinking back on all the Colts have gone through over the past three and a half months, Steichen said the biggest lesson the team has learned is how to persevere through the difficult times.

"You kind of build, you gel, the chemistry – like I said, it always starts in the middle of the season," Steichen said. "You kind of find out who you are – the chemistry, the offensive chemistry, defensive chemistry, communication. Obviously, you always want that stuff to keep rising up. I think that's what our guys have done to put ourselves in the position that we are in right now. So, just the growth from everybody – coaches, players – has been awesome."

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