INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts had a nine-game jump from 2-14 in 2012 to reach the Wild Card playoffs last year.
That was where the season ended, but Indianapolis replicated the 11-5 mark again this year and is back on the same stage.
Saturday's opponent, Kansas City, has made that same jump from 2-14 to 11-5 and like the Colts of last year finished second in its division and hits the road for the playoffs.
Indianapolis wants to make this the end of the road for the Chiefs and hopes this is the first of four steps that lead to the ultimate goal.
Three straight years the Super Bowl champion has been a Wild Card winner. Last year, Baltimore topped the Colts to turn the hat trick.
The Colts want to become the 10th Wild Card winner to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. They were the fifth to do it in 2006, when their first step came at home against the Chiefs, and here are SEVEN VICTORY KEYS:
TIGHT-FISTED – In 2013, there were seven teams with turnover ratios at plus-10 or better. Six of those seven teams are in the playoffs. Ten of the 12 playoff teams have positive or neutral ratios, and the only two on the negative side (Green Bay, San Diego) are the lone participants without 10-plus wins. It's simple, ball security equals success. The Colts and Chiefs met two weeks ago tied for the NFL lead for the fewest turnovers (14). Indianapolis wrestled the ball away four times in a 16-point win. Kansas City (plus-18) and the Colts (plus-13) top the AFC with turnover success. This game again should come down to which team plays to its strength.
CONTAIN CHARLES –** The player who touches the ball 32 percent of the time for Kansas City nearly amassed 2,000 scrimmage yards and was the only player to lead a team in rushing yards and receptions. Jamaal Charles (or Waldo, as Chuck Pagano has instructed his team) was the first player since 1975 to have seven straight games with 100 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. Charles only had 18 "touches" in the first meeting, 20 percent less than his 2013 average. He is one of the league's most potent fourth-quarter rushers, while topping the NFL in first downs produced (104). Tabbed "Public Enemy No. 1" by Pagano twice in two weeks means something. Funneling the offense through Charles is one reason for KC's success, and the Colts must contain it.
GET UP, STAY UP – The last two home games have featured game-opening touchdown drives by an offense that executed quickly with some up-tempo mixed in with the run. A team that endured a six-game stretch of first-half woes in November and early December snapped out of it late, and Indianapolis enjoyed 20-3 halftime leads over Houston and Jacksonville because of early execution. Leading for 54 and 55 minutes of those games and never trailing set so many other positive things in motion, including a juiced stadium crowd. That was a blueprint that led to 22- and 20-point wins and would be a great formula against a Chiefs team that can control the ball if it is executing.
HALF-COURT/FULL-COURT –** Put succinctly by Special Teams Coach Tom McMahon, it's winning the kicking game. With an opponent that tops the league in offensive drive starts, Pat McAfee's punts and kickoffs will play a big role in the outcome. Perhaps no other opponent makes "hidden yards" so visible. With fearless returners ("Kansas City's are ridiculous," said McAfee), the Chiefs have four TDs on punts and kickoffs – Dexter McCluster (89t, 74t PRs), Quintin Demps (95t KOR) and Knile Davis (108t KOR). Those numbers are regurgitated from two Fridays ago. Thankfully, they are the same now. If they're different Saturday, there may be some regurgitating in Indianapolis. McMahon wants his kicking team to pin the Chiefs deep, while his units prosper – play half-court offense, full-court defense.
BEDROCK MANTRA –** Questioned this week if he still believes in his early-stated philosophy of, 'Run the ball, stop the run,' Pagano replied, "Until they run me out of here, that'll be our mantra." Playoff football usually involves razor-thin margins, and the ability to run the ball as a bedrock principle has worked for years. Indianapolis closed out some big wins this year by running. Ten 100-plus games tied the fifth-highest seasonal total in 30 years. The Colts are 9-1 when topping 100 yards this year and 13-0 under Pagano when rushing 30 times. While other elements are used to attack opponents, this one has been used to ice many victories.
YO, VINNY – In a league where almost half the games this year were decided by seven points or less and where more than one-fourth were decided by three points or less, the Colts, who are 14-2 under Pagano in games decided by seven points or less (5-1 in 2013) go to battle with Adam Vinatieri, the NFL's career leading playoff scorer (196). Vinatieri has hit 48-of-58 post-season FGs and has scored in a record 25 straight playoff games. Andrew Luck calls him a security blanket and says red zone conversions are critical in post-season. Red zone or inside the 40, Vinatieri has risen to the post-season moment. In his 14th playoffs in 18 years, there may be more moments for the master.
STAY WHO YOU ARE – Observers around the team have noticed how calm and professional players are this week. It has been a three-week revival after players gathered together in a bonding session with accountability as the crux of the meeting. Results have followed, along with confidence and unity of purpose. It is evident, and Pagano said yesterday that along with playing soundly that some fun must be had. This is not a specific thing to quantify, but in crunch times intangibles can come into play. Whatever 'it' has been for the Colts for the past three weeks, have 'it' on Saturday.
QUOTE TO NOTE(Antoine Bethea on what winning the turnover battle does)
"(You) win and keep winning. That's what it'll do for us. If we can protect the ball and take the ball away, that most definitely puts some W's in the column, and we'll keep it going."