NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The long road back to relevancy began with a long-time backup quarterback taking over and picked up serious steam with a long-injured quarterback making it all the way back.
It took firm root in the heat of training camp in Westfield, survived a 1-5 start, and finally got there by winning nine of their last 10 games.
There. In the postseason for the first time since reaching the AFC Championship game in 2014.
There. With the final AFC wild-card berth in their grasp on a rainy, celebratory Sunday evening at Nissan Stadium.
Indianapolis Colts 33, Tennessee Titans 17.
From overlooked in April, May, June, July, August and September to still playing in January. The next step in this improbable journey comes Saturday afternoon when the number 6-seeded Colts meet the Texans in Houston in the first round of the playoffs.
Who’da thunk it when Frank Reich became a first-time head coach in February.
Who’da thunk it with Andrew Luck not throwing a regulation football with regularity and gusto until mid-July?
Who’da thunk it that a team so many had ranked 32nd in preseason polls would join the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs and 1970 Cincinnati Bengals as the only teams in NFL history to reach the playoffs after starting 1-5?
“Wow,’’ Reich said after the reality set it. “What a great victory by our team.
“At the end of the day, to do what we just did is a pretty good feeling. To be 1-5 and to do something that only two teams have done in the history of this league, to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start, is quite an accomplishment.’’
Luck always is cognizant of historic perspective, and he made some history by pushing his record against the Titans to 11-0, breaking a tie with John Elway. But he conceded it’s been difficult to grasp the scope of the Colts’ rise-from-the-ashes achievement “when you’re in the weeds of it, when you’re in it. It’s hard to sort of step back and appreciate it.
“Frank mentioned it (in the locker room) . . . that’s great and it’s awesome. We’re just excited to have another opportunity to get to go play again.’’
They have that opportunity – a third meeting with the Texans – in large part because:
- The offense got off to a blistering start. After generating zero 90-yard scoring drives in the first 15 games, the Luck-led bunch opened the game with two. Luck capped the opening 92-yard trip with an 11-yard TD pass to Dontrelle Inman then capped the ensuing 90-yard drive with a 9-yard TD to Eric Ebron. When it was over, the Colts had piled up 426 yards and 24 first downs, and Luck had passed for 285 yards and three TDs. After watching Luck’s latest outing, it’s worth remembering he missed all of 2017 with his long rehab from surgery on his right shoulder. He didn’t begin throwing meaningful passes with the team until training camp opened July 26.
- The running game was a game-long thorn in the Titans’ side. The Colts slammed away 36 times for 158 yards. Marlon Mack was the catalyst with 119 yards and one TD on 25 attempts.
- The defense allowed just 258 total yards as the Titans were unable to find any rhythm behind backup Blaine Gabbert after starter Marcus Mariota was a pre-game scratch due to a stinger. Derrick Henry finished with 93 yards on 16 carries, but a 33-yard run in the second half skewed his effectiveness. The Colts didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all season.
- The defense slammed the door with interceptions by Kenny Moore II and Darius Leonard in the fourth quarter.
- The Colts en masse did enough to overcome a season-high 12 penalties (for 96 yards), a pick-6 suffered by Luck in the second quarter that gave the Titans life and Mack’s lost fumble in the red zone two possessions later.
“We got off to a great start and that was awesome,’’ Luck said. “Then I wanted to dig a hole there for a couple of minutes and go hide in it. I was very embarrassed with myself for the pick-6, and we managed to make enough plays to just stay ahead, ahead, ahead.
“We were sloppy tonight and we overcame a lot of sloppiness.’’
At so many levels, satisfaction permeated the Colts’ locker room. Yes, there’s so much more to be done.
“We’re in the hunt and this is where we wanted to go, but we’ve got another mountain to climb,” Reich said.
But there was no denying the sense of accomplishment. Again, very few outside of the Colts’ headquarters dared envision what has transpired.
As so much of the offseason discussion focused on general manager Chris Ballard rebuilding the roster and the franchise targeting some date in the not-too-distant future – but in the future nonetheless – Reich had more aggressive short-term goals.
“Chris and I would talk,’’ he said. “He had the perspective of a GM. We talked about building. We talked about where we were at and goals that we had.
“But I took myself out of that equation from the beginning. I said, ‘I just want to say up front. I’ve got one thing on my mind, and that’s to win this year. That’s what our expectation is. We have the players to do it.’’’
Reich noticed the preseason rankings. They almost universally had the Colts perched at number 32 in a 32-team league.
“We talked about that,’’ Reich said. “Then we were ranked 32nd after the draft, with that draft we had.
“I like where we’re at. I like our team.’’
So does Leonard, the second-round draft pick and a front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
“We used that as motivation and we got into the playoffs, so I don’t think we’re ranked number 32 anymore,’’ he said. “We knew what we had in this locker room. We had a whole bunch of talent in this locker room. We trusted each other.’’
Luck wasn’t driven by the overriding lack of respect offered by outsiders.
“No, it doesn’t motivate me,’’ he said. “I really want to be the best football player I can be and the best teammate, the best quarterback for this team. And that’s been my motivation, to improve every day, to get better.’’
At the same time, Luck added with a smile, “Certainly it’s fun to say, ‘I told ya so’ in a sense and to see who doubted us.’’
Doubt no more. What seemed improbable two months ago became a reality.
Before Reich addressed the media, he was the center of a jubilant locker room. He was a constant playoff participant during his years as a backup quarterback with the Buffalo Bills, enjoyed similar treatment as a Colts assistant in the mid-2000s and was part of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl championship team in February.
“It measures right up there,’’ he said. “This one is special because it’s not just one game. Some of the other comebacks I’ve been a part of were one-game deals. This is ‘You’re 1-5.’ That’s special. It not only takes the whole team, but it takes the whole team for 10 weeks.
So was the gist of Reich’s post-game message to his team.
“The most satisfying thing is to walk in the locker room and look at your teammate and say, ‘We did it. We did it,’’’ he said. “Those are three of the best words that you can ever say to your teammates.
“To me, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The rest of it is fluff. But to go after it every day and to work hard, to fight to get better, to believe in each other and then to do it and to get it done, it’s not easy to do. It takes a grind. It takes the right kind of leadership in the locker room and we have that.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.