In the rollicking home locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium following the Colts' 23-20 Week 17 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, it wasn't yet clear if Week 18 was actually going to be a win-and-in game.
But none of the players celebrating a hard-fought win were looking at next weekend's game against the Houston Texans as anything other than that.
"If we win we're in — I think," wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. "With the different scenarios, I don't know them all – but I'm just gonna go with that because it rhymes."
It turns out it's not just a rhyme, it's reality. Because the Colts win and the Cincinnati Bengals lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, no scenario exists in which the Colts wouldn't make the playoffs with a Week 18 win.
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Week 17 wasn't a win-and-in game for the Colts, but realistically it was lose-and-stay-home. The Colts approached Sunday's game with a renewed sense of urgency after losing by 19 to the Atlanta Falcons on Christmas Eve, a game which eliminated any margin for error in Indianapolis.
And the Colts rebounded by not turning the ball over, holding Las Vegas to one sack, hitting two 50-yard passes and making several key plays in critical moments on defense while fielding a depleted secondary. That kind of resilience is something head coach Shane Steichen has worked to instill in his team, and it paid off with a critical late-season win on New Year's Eve.
"Shoot, in this league, sometimes you get beat," Steichen said. "You don't want to get beat like we did in Cincinnati. You don't want to get beat like we did in Atlanta. How are we going to respond to it? We can't let that happen week-in and week-out. You have to bounce back. Our guys have done a heck of a job bouncing back the last two times that's happened to us."
Minshew sparked the Colts' first score with a 50-yard scramble-and-strike to wide receiver Josh Downs, which running back Jonathan Taylor turned into an opening-drive touchdown a few plays later. A cagey, punt-oriented back-and-forth ensued for a good chunk of the first half until the Colts got a third-and-one on their own 42-yard line late in the second quarter.
The Colts knew the Raiders would get aggressive to stop the run in that down-and-distance and added a sixth offensive lineman – guard Josh Sills – to the play. On heavy play-action, Minshew floated a deep ball to wide receiver Alec Pierce, who ran free and sprinted into the end zone for a 58-yard touchdown.
Those two plays helped put the Colts up, 14-3, at halftime. While the Raiders made it close at times in the second half, an efficient-then-explosive run game was ultimately too much for Las Vegas to overcome.
The Colts, too, were able to patch together their secondary – which was without its two most veteran players, cornerback Kenny Moore II (who was inactive with a back injury) and safety Julian Blackmon (who was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday) – and still come away with a win, even with All-Pro Raiders wideout Davante Adams catching 13 passes for 126 yards with two touchdowns.
And when it came down to who-makes-a-play-time, it was the Colts who delivered with a punishing running attack – while the Raiders were flagged for offside on a missed 50-yard field goal, with Matt Gay connecting from 45 yards on his second try to put the Colts back up by two scores with three minutes left in the game.
"We all understand how much we needed it, the realistic ramifications if we lost," quarterback Gardner Minshew II said. "Since the bye week, it's been, hey, we've just got to win one at a time and we'll get there, eventually.
"We're here now, so it's time to go do it."
The Colts have built for months to handle the stakes of Week 18. As soon as Steichen arrived in Indianapolis in mid-February, he began intentionally working to build a culture that could rise to a challenge like the win-and-in one looming next weekend. A team that went 4-12-1 in 2022 and wilted in a win-and-in game in 2021 is now back in this spot, with plenty of new players and new coaches – but also a certain collective belief that's run as an undercurrent to this entire season.
The playoffs, effectively, start this weekend with the Texans. Whether the Colts get to play more than an effective playoff game hinges on every little thing they do this week, starting on New Year's Day.
"Look, this is what you want," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "This is what you train for. As a little kid, this is the game you want to play in. So let's take advantage of that moment.
"Let's not run from it. Let's embrace it."