INDIANAPOLIS – Short of a miracle return by Reggie Wayne, the Indianapolis Colts couldn't ask for a better way to enter the playoffs.
They're on a three-game winning streak after their 30-10 regular-season finale win over Jacksonville on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The offense is clicking, with Andrew Luck hitting all sorts of passes and making terrific connections with the resurgent and quite fleet-footed T.Y. Hilton. The defense is clicking, with Robert Mathis bringing heat and Antoine Bethea returning to life with an interception. Special teams? Adam Vinatieri moved past 2,000 career points and refuses to act his (old) age.
The No.4 seed Colts will play the No.5 seed Kansas City Chiefs to open the playoffs at 4:35 p.m. Saturday in Indianapolis.
The last three weeks the Colts – 11-5 for the second-straight season – have coalesced into a playoff contender rather than the default champions of the lukewarm-bordering-on-stale AFC South.
“There's a bit of a rhythm that we've found. It's good,” Luck said. “We're playing decent football going into the postseason. The postseason is a whole different ball game, one and done, and we're excited about that. To finish the regular season strong with these wins, it's good.”
Credit a group of players who embraced their roles and the team's identity over the second half of the season. There were major bumps along the way (blowout losses to St. Louis and Arizona), but once the Colts settled in with their first units, particularly on offense, they found their way.
The defense, playing more often with a lead on the scoreboard, has been able to improve its play, too, giving up only 20 points over the last three games, including a late garbage-time touchdown on Sunday.
“There's been times we've played well, but not consistently,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “These past few weeks, we've played well as a whole and that's what most important – all three phases.”
There should be some praise reserved for two players who lost their starting spots during the last month, Trent Richardson and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Richardson became the relief pitcher for Donald Brown and short-yardage back for punishing moments of 4th-and-1. The load of pressure off his shoulder freed him. He has played better the last two weeks, with more impact plays, than any time since he arrived in the trade with Cleveland.
Things have been worse for Heyward-Bey, who hasn't caught a pass since early December and enters the game only in obvious running downs. He went from the potential No.1 receiver in the wake of Wayne's injury to a special-teams player. But here's the thing: Heyward-Bey has embraced special teams, sprinting down on coverage and delivering hits. There might be no better example of a team player in the NFL.
“We always talk about the team, the team, the team, nothing is more important than the team,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts and our guys have bought into that.”
Credit, too, goes to offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. He veered away from his run-first, power-running offense to better use the talents of Luck. There are more no-huddle sets. There's more urgency. There's more attacking through the air. Luck twice nearly had TD passes on the Colts' first possession Sunday, only to have Coby Fleener drop a pass and Griff Whalen get one knocked out of his hands. That drive still ended with a touchdown leap by Donald Brown. Luck kept throwing, hitting 11 different receivers and completing 26 of 37 passes for 282 yards and one touchdown.
Since the return of Whalen from the practice squad, Luck has seemed more confident in all of his receivers. He's used Whalen extensively, and that offensive option has opened things back up for Hilton, who set career marks with 11 catches for 155 yards on Sunday and passed 1,000 yards receiving.
“I don't know if it's necessarily more aggressive than another style of offense; we've executed well in it,” Luck said, mentioning that the offensive changes of late had been a subject of discussion between Luck, Hamilton, quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and backup quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck and Chandler Harnish.
“We've talked about being deliberate with shots you take, and make sure they're smart ones,” Luck said.
The Colts defense has settled on a scheme that should be called “The Robert Mathis Formation.” The Colts are riding the heavy pressure of Mathis (19.5 sacks) and that momentum extends to the secondary with more pass breakups and interceptions. Jerrell Freeman forced another fumble Sunday as he continues to supply energy in the middle that evokes some of the best inside linebackers in Colts history.
NFL teams want to be playing their best football, with momentum, entering the playoffs.
There's no question the Colts have both of those things going. Are they as good as they would be with Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, etc., healthy? Probably not. But what the Colts coaches have done, and done well, is put the available players in the right spots. They've even juggled an offensive line that rarely has the same combination from week to week.
Perhaps Pagano pegged it with the use of one word: Mojo.
“The defense is playing lights out, we've got a ton of momentum, the offense is gelling at the right time,” Pagano said. “Being able to get hot and play well in December, to be 4-1 and go to the playoffs with some momentum, some mojo, hopefully will work in our favor.”
It's a great time for the playoffs to start. The Colts can't get more ready than they are today.