INDIANAPOLIS – There's a new twist in this Indianapolis Colts season, and it's going to be interesting to see if they can deal with it.
They control their playoff destiny. They're sitting with the No.5 seed right now, a game up on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, teams that play each other later. Depending on the Houston Texans' trip to New England, the Colts are still in the AFC South title chase.
At the very least, a playoff berth is the Colts' to lose.
That's a lot different than being the lovable underdogs they've played most of the season.
“That's the fun part because if you stick with the process, you'll reach (your goals),” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “If you start looking at the final goal, you'll probably get beat. Like I say every week, it gets boring, you've got to respect the process.”
The Colts cannot clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Not officially.
But with an 8-4 record, the Colts are at most two wins away from a sure-thing playoff spot where they'll likely get the prize of traveling to Denver, New England or Baltimore. (No, really, it'd be fun. Great learning experience.)
First things first. The Colts cannot afford to lose to the Titans. It would be blow to their wild-card standing, their improving stature in the league and their confidence. It could even ruin the season. That's no joke. With road games coming up at Houston and Kansas City, a loss Sunday could have the Colts sitting with an 8-7 record heading into the final weekend. That might even put them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
So to borrow a phrase Andrew Luck has often used, they haven't accomplished anything yet.
Now comes some real pressure.
My guess is the Colts will be up to the task. “Respect the process” is not a new phrase for Arians. He picked it up from coach Chuck Pagano and carried it over. It means worrying about the day and task at hand and no more.
The fact he's been preaching that all season helps it to resonate this week, now that the end of the season – and that playoff berth – is within sight.
Arians said the older players, and that surely means Robert Mathis, Reggie Wayne and Cory Redding, for starters, won't let the younger guys get caught up in the media or fan love that's been drifting the Colts' direction.
“You've got to think one team, one game, one week at a time,” Mathis said. “Just don't look past anybody because if you do that, they'll make you look bad. Unfortunately, we've had a couple of those experiences this year.”
Those moments of exposure have been on the road, of course, primarily in New York and New England.
It hasn't been easy at home, but the Colts are 5-1 at Lucas Oil Stadium, losing only to the devastating combination of defensive brain freeze and Cecil Shorts III.
The Colts have played the Titans once, winning in overtime in Nashville on running back Vick Ballard's Fosbury Flop into the end zone. Theoretically, this will be a big boost to the Colts offense since Luck can study his own performance and tweak it for the better.
Luck completed 26 of 38 passes for 297 yards, one touchdown and one interception at Tennessee.
“It's always easier when you have yourself to evaluate,” Arians said. “You've played a team and you see yourself and your own offense out there. The game should slow down, especially third down and red zone, the two most difficult areas.
“You've seen what they do; they haven't changed much. You should be able to perform better the second time you play them.”
The Colts defense must still deal with Chris Johnson, but it'll face a different quarterback in Jake Locker. Matt Hasselbeck played well in the first game (22 of 29, 236 yards, one touchdown).
If the Colts can limit Johnson's breakaway plays and avoid getting burned by Nate Washington or Kendall Wright, they might not need much more than 21 points from the offense.
The win at Detroit was a credit to resilience, coming back from two scores down in the fourth quarter. This game needs to be a credit to consistent play.
It'd be nice if the Colts could build a lead and have some breathing room at the end.
That's not their style this year. They control their own destiny now. But, until further notice, Colts fans should keep holding their breath until the clock expires.