T.Y. Hilton ailing but adamant: It’s ‘Game 7’ for Colts

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 24: T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This is where the Indianapolis Colts find themselves after what could have been a fatal start to the season and a furious push over the final two months.

“Game 7,’’ T.Y. Hilton said.

And this is where the Colts’ perennial Pro Bowl receiver finds himself after missing yet another day of practice five days before that Game 7 meeting with the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.

“You know I ain’t gonna be missing that,’’ Hilton smiled. “Same mentality. Just continue to get my body right and get ready for Sunday.’’

Sixteen weeks after embarking on a season thought to be the first phase of a gradual rebuild, the Colts are within one victory of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2014. Shoot, sweep the season series with the Titans – here’s where we remind you Andrew Luck is 10-0 against Tennessee – and get a Houston loss at home to Jacksonville, and they win the AFC South and would host a first-round playoff game Jan. 5-6.

The Colts have put themselves in position to accomplish the improbable by following Frank Reich’s unwavering message, one that’s been driven home over and over following the team’s 1-5 start.

Finish this week 1-0. That’s all that matters.

“Maybe I’m blind, but I felt like (the message) took from the beginning,’’ Reich said Wednesday. “I really felt the guys, even when they were going through that rough spell, I still believed we knew we were getting better.’’

They’ve followed the lead of Luck, who can come full circle Sunday on NBC’s prime-time stage. The shoulder issues that sent spasms of pain down his right arm, forced him to miss all of 2017 and threatened his career can be traced to week 3 of 2015 in Nashville. In the second quarter of what would be a 35-33 victory, Brian Orakpo skirted Luck’s backside protection and drove him into the ground with a career-altering sack.

Now, three years and three months later – 1,190 days, but who’s counting? – Luck is in position to deliver the Colts back to the postseason. They are in total control.

“In a sense, it’s always been in our hands,’’ Luck insisted. “We’ve always felt that. It’s never, ‘Oh, we don’t control this or we have to do something with this team, that team.’ We haven’t played that game as a team.’’

But doesn’t the magnitude of the rematch with the Titans amp up his competitive juices?

“I’ve looked forward to every game this year and every preseason game,’’ Luck said. “Maybe it’s because I missed last year or what I’ve been through.’’

As much as the Colts have benefitted from Reich’s calm, calculated leadership and Luck’s return to being one of the NFL’s driving forces, they’ve fed off their diminutive, dynamic wideout who’s practiced once in the past three weeks, and then on a limited basis.

Earlier in the week, Reich reached deep into his bag of superlatives to describe Hilton’s ability to remain prolific while dealing with injuries.

“He has some superhuman way of playing through stuff,’’ he said. “Then he does it for us a few times here this year and you see how legit that is.’’

Hilton’s litany of injuries is long: chest and hamstring injuries that forced him to miss games – and losses – to New England and the New York Jets; a shoulder injury earlier this month; an injury to his right ankle that has forced him to spend way too much time with the trainers instead of practicing with his teammates.

“From morning till the time I leave,’’ Hilton said of his daily treatment schedule. “Even came in on Christmas. Just trying to get healthy. Just spending time on my body, getting it healthy.

“It’s been tough. It’s been tough, man. But I’m doing everything I can just to be out there with my team. It’s another tough week I’ve got to grind out. I’ll be out there.’’

Hilton has been out there, playing through whatever has kept him from properly preparing for whichever team is next. He’s in the midst of the most prolific seven-game stretch of his career: 48 receptions, 856 yards and two touchdowns. Stretched over a 16-game season, that’s 110 catches and 1,956 yards.

“It’s really unbelievable what he’s doing without practice,’’ Reich said. “I just think very few players could do what he’s doing. He has no mental errors when he goes out there. It’s like he doesn’t miss a beat.’’

Reich credited Hilton’s “elite athletic ability’’ and his intelligence.

“He’s just got this savvy, just understands the game,’’ he said.

Normally, practice time during the season is needed to further enhance the timing and rhythm between a quarterback and receiver.

“It certainly helps when you have six years of working together with the guy,’’ Luck said. “You don’t feel like practice is as essential.

“It’s not ideal. Everybody wants to be out there feeling 100 percent and at practice every day, but T.Y. has gotten through.’’

He’s gotten through, and helped pull his teammates with him.

Luck and Hilton were part of the transformational 2012 draft that was instrumental in the Colts recovering quickly from the 2-14 finish the previous season. They were integral parts of the franchise posting three straight 11-5 records and reaching three consecutive playoffs.

Now, they’re focal points as the Colts look to end their three-year playoff drought.

“Absolutely. That’s one of my main things is get back to the playoffs,’’ Hilton said. “We’ve just got to go out there and play Colts football.

“If we play Colts football, we’ll be fine.’’

One game, so much on the line. Hilton’s eyes lit up.

“You’ve got to love it,’’ he said. “Game 7 mentality. You win, you keep going. You lose, you go home.

“You’ve got to bring it.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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