Little more than a week ago, a first-round playoff exit seemed certain.
Today, not so much.
Because of a favorable setting, the Colts might make it to the divisional round, after all.
Maybe. Possibly. Perhaps.
Playing at home helps. Playing the Bengals helps more.
But as anyone who has paid even modest attention knows,
the Colts are not long for
Take Sunday’s regular-season finale at Tennessee, for example.
Yes, the Colts won and did so convincingly. Yes, in the process they swept the AFC South for a second straight season.
And, yes, they take a victory into the playoffs — always a good thing for a young team trying to establish rhythm.
But the problem is, Tennessee is arguably the NFL’s worst team. The Colts’ division is the worst in the AFC and maybe in the NFL. And they haven’t had any real rhythm to speak of since Oct. 19, when they capped a five-game winning streak with a 27-0 thrashing of the Bengals.
Results have been mixed to disappointing (mostly disappointing) ever since.
True, there was a four-game winning streak between Nov. 23 and Dec. 14 — a stretch of triumphs against pedestrian opponents Jacksonville, Washington, Cleveland and Houston. But along came Dallas on Dec. 21, and the result wasn’t pretty.
Nor were earlier outcomes against Pittsburgh (Oct. 26) and New England (Nov. 16), opponents who, like the Cowboys, can go places in the playoffs.
So here the Colts are, barely good enough to be in the postseason and nowhere near good enough to advance far in it.
But the news isn’t all bad.
For the third straight year in the Andrew Luck/Chuck Pagano era, the Colts are in the playoffs. For the third straight year, they finished the regular season 11-5.
And for the second straight year, they ran the AFC South table and are division champions.
Weak division or no, weak schedule or no, those are no small accomplishments. This is only Year Three of a major reclamation project.
The Colts have no business stringing together winning seasons, playoff appearances and division titles. Yet they’re doing it; and for that, Colts Nation should be grateful for the present and stoked for the future.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
What we hear instead is criticism. Criticism of the front office, criticism of the coaches, criticism of play calling, and just plain ol’ criticism. Sure, some is justified, but much isn’t.
Why is it out there?
Because a huge injustice occurred during the offseason, when media platform after media platform anointed the Colts AFC champions before training even began — a standard that, even in the best of Peyton Manning times, they reached only twice.
Stamping an expectation like that on an established contender is risky enough. Foisting it on a rebuilding project in a bad division is simply ridiculous. But once it’s there, it doesn’t go away.
Nor does the indelible sense that something is terribly wrong when the expectation isn’t met.
To be sure, the Super Bowl is an expectation the Colts won’t meet. But there is nothing terribly wrong with them. They have holes to fill, weaknesses to strengthen and injuries to overcome, but they aren’t in disarray.
They have a franchise quarterback in Luck; a budding star in T.Y. Hilton; a winning coach in Pagano; a wealth of bright spots at other positions; and a solid chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the second time in as many years.
Offseason visions of the Lombardi Trophy notwithstanding, the divisional playoffs — in light of circumstances — have never looked better.