INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Suddenly, Frank Reich’s season-long refrain has taken on maximum meaning.
Stick to the process.
That tunnel-vision approach has guided the Indianapolis Colts from that 1-5 abyss to eight wins in the last nine games, and delivered them to one of those ultimate sports moments. Win one more game – Sunday night in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans on NBC’s national stage – and return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.
It might be as an AFC wild-card participant. It could even be as the AFC South champions.
But the end result is the same: with one more victory, No. 10 on the season following last year’s 4-12 Andrew Luck-less clunker, the Colts play into January.
Despite the enormity of the moment ahead, Reich already has dug his heels in.
The first-year head coach ain’t changing now.
“Going forward, it’s our same deal,’’ Reich said Monday, less than 24 hours after the Colts chased down the New York Giants 28-27 to make next Sunday night possible. “After the game we just said, ‘Hey, we’ve got one more week guaranteed to us. That’s it. So let’s make the most of it every day, get better and get ready for this game coming up Sunday.’’
Reich insisted he hasn’t taken time to consider the win-or-else ramifications of the rematch with the Titans. The winner keeps playing. The loser schedules exit interviews Monday and players clean out their locker room cubicles.
“You know what? I haven’t even thought about it in those terms,’’ Reich said. “We’re just convinced that the best way is not to weigh the importance of it but to weigh the importance of just practice and the everyday process.
“I certainly understand all the outside variables and all the other things that everybody else would look at, but from inside out really the healthiest approach for us is to keep doing what we are doing.’’
Sunday marks the third time the Colts have found themselves in the ultimate must-win situation on the final weekend of the regular season since their relocation in 1984.
In 1989, they took an 8-7 record into their season finale at New Orleans. Win, and the Colts would earn a wild-card berth and host the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were mugged in the Big Easy 41-6.
To extend their magical late-season ride in 1995, the Colts needed a closing win at home against New England. They got it 10-7, and earned a wild-card spot that mushroomed into a journey to the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh.
Now, a 10th win in the last 11 games is required to play into January. The Colts are hoping to join the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs and 1970 Cincinnati Bengals as the only teams in NFL history to reach the postseason following a 1-5 start.
If they finish their improbable trip back from 1-5, it will be because Reich’s message has found a receptive audience.
“We just take it one game at a time,’’ rookie linebacker Darius Leonard said Sunday. “We don’t look back. We don’t look forward. We just talk about going week-to-week and being 1-0 after each week.
“We’re just going to keep competing and let the chips fall where they fall. We don’t let any outside noise come in.’’
Chester Rogers’ 1-yard touchdown pass from Luck with 55 seconds remaining gave the Colts their only lead of the game against the Giants. He realizes the magnitude of what’s ahead.
“This is what it’s about,’’ he said. “This is what you prepare for and what you play for – big games and a chance to make the playoffs.
“It feels good to actually be playing for something instead of just another game.’’
As much as possible, though, Reich will treat Game 17 – this season’s ultimate game until something bigger comes along – as just another game. That might be difficult as the media explores all of the subplots surrounding the Titans game.
The most significant subplot: the Colts are 10-0 against the Titans with Luck under center. They’ve won 17 of the last 20 in the series.
“We’ve acknowledged that,’’ he said. “We’ve acknowledged we don’t live in a vacuum. We’ve said that, ‘Hey, we don’t live in a vacuum. There is stuff said, done and that’s fine.’
“So all the more reason . . . just understand that there’s this gravitational pull going the other way of the mindset that we want to have. There is a natural gravitational pull from the outside and it’s not a negative or evil. It’s just not the most productive mindset for us who are playing the game.’’
T.Y. Hilton: superhuman?
T.Y. Hilton is in the midst of the most prolific seven-game stretch of his career: 48 catches for 856 yards and two touchdowns. It’s the NFL’s fattest yardage total since week 10.
It’s also largely been accomplished while Hilton has worked through a variety of injuries in December. After having his practice time limited by groin and shoulder injuries early in the month, he injured his right ankle while piling up 199 yards on 9 catches at Houston.
Hilton has practiced once – last Friday on a limited basis – in the past two weeks.
Reich was asked how much pain Hilton has been dealing with.
“The thing about T.Y., I don’t think he really ever lets us know,’’ he said. “I just know it’s a lot. I just know it’s a lot because of the limited practice time that he’s had and then to go out there and do what he is doing. I just think the guy is the best. Incredibly tough, never complains.
“I have learned with T.Y., I don’t go and ask him how he’s feeling every day. I just don’t do that. He tells me he’s going to be there and I trust that.’’
Reich trusts Hilton when it comes to dealing with injuries.
“He has some superhuman way of playing through stuff,’’ he said. “Then he does it for us a few times this year and you see how legit that is.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.