INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis allowed one postseason-clinching chance to slip away at Houston.
It doesn’t intend to let the same thing happen again at Kansas City.
“It’s the playoffs. This is the playoffs,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said before Wednesday’s practice began.
For the Colts (9-5), this is a rare second chance in a league where players and teams risk being left behind any time they miss an opportunity.
Just ask the Chicago Bears, 7-1 at midseason and now fighting just to make the playoffs. Or the Baltimore Ravens, who were in contention to earn the AFC’s top seed three weeks ago. Or quarterback Alex Smith, who led San Francisco to last year’s NFC championship game and a 6-2-1 record this season before losing his starting job to Colin Kaepernick.
The Colts are not looking back after making a historic turnaround.
They didn’t complain when team owner Jim Irsay and new general manager Ryan Grigson started over in March by cutting team captains Peyton Manning and Gary Brackett, letting Jeff Saturday and Pierre Garcon walk away in free agency and opting to rebuild through the draft and with a handful of players who needed another chance to prove they belonged in the NFL.
They ignored the critics who pegged them as the league’s worst team in training camp and projected three wins at best. They didn’t despair after returning from a bye week and were told coach Chuck Pagano was taking an indefinite leave after being diagnosed with leukemia.
So they’re sure not going to let the 29-17 loss at Houston linger.
Instead, they’re focused on their next task — beating the reeling Chiefs (2-12), who have barely averaged 10 points per game and were shut out in Oakland last weekend.
“There’s a playoff spot at stake, so it’s win or go home,” Indianapolis outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. “We can’t go out and lay an egg like we did last week.”
It’s a simple scenario for the Colts.
Indy makes it in with a win over the Chiefs or in the season-finale against Houston (12-2) or if the Steelers (7-7) lose one of their two remaining games — Sunday at Cincinnati (8-6) or the final week against Cleveland (5-9).
But the Colts are chasing more than just a playoff spot.
A win would help them regain some momentum heading into January, allow Arians to tie the NFL record for victories after a midseason coaching change, make the Colts one of only four teams in league history to go from two or fewer wins one season to 10 or more the next, and, of course, take the pressure off Pagano if he returns to the locker room Monday as players, coaches and team officials are hoping.
Almost from the moment Pagano began chemotherapy treatments in late September, Arians and Indy’s upper management targeted the Dec. 30 game as Pagano’s return. With that game fast approaching, Arians has said twice this week that nothing is certain yet.
Arians said he is eager to go back to working just one job, offensive coordinator.
“Hopefully we can get this victory and secure our playoff spot and turn it back over to Chuck,” he said.
Players can’t wait, either.
“It would be great, I’m sure it would be emotional for a lot of people if it comes (next week),” Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck said. “Hopefully, it will be soon. It will be great to have him back.”
Pagano may not be the only one making a return in the next few days.
Starting safety Tom Zbikowski has missed the last three games with a knee injury. On Monday, Arians ruled him out for the Chiefs game. On Wednesday, Arians acknowledged the prognosis had improved and said Zbikowski was questionable. He did dress for practice Wednesday.
“He’s moving around really well, so he is not out as I reported earlier this week,” Arians said.
Yet there are plenty of other concerns, especially along the offensive line where starting center Samson Satele is out with an ankle injury and right tackle Winston Justice (biceps) and backup center A.Q. Shipley (right knee) are both questionable.
If Satele and Shipley don’t play, Arians will move right guard Mike McGlynn to center and the rest of the Colts will adapt again — just as they have all season.
“I think guys understand what’s at stake,” Luck said. “There’s a little more of a sense of urgency in terms of what to expect, but it is kind of like the playoffs.”