Indianapolis Colts fans might want to brace for a possible melancholy end to a miraculous season.
There's no question the best finish to this 2012 season would be an inexplicable run to the Super Bowl, with players lifting coach Chuck Pagano high into the air in celebration. Imagine that.
Reality might bite.
The road ahead looks treacherous. First up is a home game against the Houston Texans on Sunday. The atmosphere should be electric, with fans welcoming Pagano back for the first time on the sideline since his leukemia went into remission. Energy should be high, especially initially.
But there's still the problem of J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson. I'm not sure the Colts have an answer to either one. If I'm the Colts, I'm more worried about Watt, who sacked Andrew Luck three times in Houston and has the sack record in sight. He plays with a manic aggressiveness and the Colts' offensive line has been fairly ineffective in altering his path.
Johnson presents big-play ability. He had one right off the bat in Houston. The Colts' secondary might be slightly improved thanks to more effective play from a healthy Vontae Davis, but it's still vulnerable to elite receivers. Receivers with at least 100 yards in a game against the Colts this season: Brandon Marshall, Percy Harvin, Brian Hartline, Cecil Shorts III, Rob Gronkowski, Steve Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Kenny Britt and Andre Johnson.
The Texans also will be playing to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs, to win in Indy for the first time ever and to show the upstart Colts who's in charge of the AFC South. The good new for the Colts is Gary Kubiak's conservative play-calling could continue to help Indy.
Still, the Texans have to be favored over a banged-up Colts team that has already clinched its playoff spot and cannot improve its position.
Win or lose Sunday, the Colts will go on the road, probably to Baltimore, to open the playoffs. (There's an outside chance of traveling to New England, but life isn't that unfair, is it?)
The Colts have not defeated a good team on the road this season. They beat a team that should have been good (Detroit) but even that took late-game heroics. The Colts' best road game might have been the loss at Houston, marred significantly by a fumble at the goal line and a blocked punt.
The Ravens struggled for a huge stretch the last month, but seemed to regain their mojo in a big win over the New York Giants last Sunday. Given the strength of the running game with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, big-time receivers in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, and an opportune if not deep defense, they seem likely to be a heavy favorite to beat the Colts at home.
Where could the Colts have an advantage in both of these games? Probably the same places where they've won 10 games.
They're as close-knit as any team, pulled together by Pagano's illness and interim coach Bruce Arians' ability to rally the team as a whole, not a group of individuals.
They have an uncanny ability to not give up on any situation. Seven fourth-quarter or overtime drives directed by Luck – a rookie record – might be the single most impressive on-field feat he's accomplished this season. He also refuses to get down when bad plays arise, and his teammates notice and emulate that.
They have veterans who know how to win (Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Cory Redding and Antoine Bethea) and rookies who now know how it's done, too. It was funny when Luck said maybe he and his fellow rookies might be too ignorant to know any better in staging so many comeback, late-game wins. That might be true. It is an asset.
“We have a lot of guys out there, they don't know any better,” Wayne said. “They just want to go out there and play until the final whistle is blown. The attitude has been just sticking to it and not giving up, just keep playing, keep battling especially with everything that's happened with our head coach all year because it would have been an easy way to say woe me and just kind of go in the tank a little bit.”
So it's not out of the question that the Colts could upset Houston and win a first-round game. Or they could lose to Houston and still find a way to surprise on the road.
Or they could lose both games and be done for the season.
That last possibility might be the highest in probability under the circumstances. And if it does happen, fans will need to swallow hard and look big picture. This team is well ahead of where most expected it to be after Year 1 of a new regime and quarterback.
Maybe that should considered an asset, too: They've got nothing to lose now.