INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts have a rookie quarterback, an interim coach, a long injury list and one of the league's youngest teams.
It's not supposed to be a winning combination in the NFL, yet somehow Indianapolis finds itself making a surprise playoff push as the calendar turns toward December. And as the stakes increase, the Colts seem immune to late-season pressure.
They just expect to win.
"It's worked this far," interim coach Bruce Arians said Monday. "Just because it's December, the price of poker has gone up but the process is still the same."
Indy's veterans never bought into the conventional wisdom they had to be patient for this rebuilding project to work. Instead, Pro Bowlers like Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis immediately showed their cards by rejecting any mention of the R-word during the offseason.
The rest of the team went all in with the same message, even if everyone else considered it nothing more than a bluff.
There was good reason for doubts.
At this time last season, the Colts were still winless and positioning themselves to win the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes. They finished a dismal 2-14, then blew up one of the NFL's most stable organizations by firing vice chairman Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian, coach Jim Caldwell, releasing Peyton Manning and cutting ties with a handful of other key veterans.
Twelve months later, with Luck behind center, only four AFC teams have better records than Indy (7-4) and the postseason has become a real possibility.
"All of our dreams are still alive. We write our own destiny and that's the biggest thing," defensive end Cory Redding said after Indy's latest victory, 20-13 over Buffalo. "We don't have to rely on anybody else to get a win or get a loss. Our destiny is in our hands. It's up to us to just continue to do what we're doing, keep playing hard, keep working hard to just continue to stack wins and stay in this hunt."
The secret to the Colts' success is simple: They are 5-1 at home, 6-1 in one-possession games and have not lost back-to-back games all season.
Luck is still on pace for a historic rookie year and has already matched the rookie win total of Sam Bradford, the No. 1 pick and NFL offensive rookie of the year in 2010.
Wayne is charging toward the best statistical season of his NFL career at the age of 34.
And even the usually-maligned defense has continued to show improvement despite losing both of its starting cornerbacks to injuries during the past month and playing most of this season without Freeney and Mathis on the field at the same time. On Monday, Arians announced the Colts had lost yet another key contributor — defensive tackle Fili Moala, who is expected to go on season-ending injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Since coach Chuck Pagano took an indefinite leave to battle leukemia, the Colts are 6-2 and Arians has moved into a tie for seventh all-time in victories by coaches who have taken over during the season.
Some are already lobbying for Luck to be the rookie of the year, first-year general manager Ryan Grigson to be executive of the year and, yes, Arians as coach of the year.
But none of this has fazed the Colts.
"We understand the position we're in, but again, nothing has been accomplished yet," Luck said.
With five games to play, the Colts are in good position, too.
They are currently the AFC's No. 5 seed, one game ahead of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and at least two games ahead of everyone else in the playoff hunt.
Their remaining schedule includes three teams with losing records — Detroit (4-7) on Sunday, home against Tennessee (4-7) the following week and a Dec. 13 date at Kansas City. The other two games are against Houston, including the regular-season finale. By then the Texans may have clinched the conference's top seed and the Colts could have Pagano back on the sideline.
Still, Arians realizes it won't be an easy path.
"We're the type of team, we're going to be in a lot of close games and fortunately we've found a lot of ways to win them," he said. "The big thing for us is to go on the road and protect the football and play good defense and bring those special teams with us on the road and see if we can play our best football on the road."