Indianapolis’ late-season charge creates playoff stir

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Suddenly, the Indianapolis Colts are creating a buzz around town.

They ran the ball effectively Sunday against one of the league’s top defenses, stymied two of the league’s premier receivers in back-to-back weeks and ended Houston’s nine-game win streak and Dallas’ five-game win streak.

Earning victories in their last two games could send the Colts back to the playoffs for the first time in four years and they could be a difficult matchup in the postseason, if they make it.

“I can absolutely feel a significant difference in the last few weeks compared to the beginning of the year,” coach Frank Reich said when asked about the atmosphere around town.

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“Not that I get out very much because I don’t, but the little bit I do, the Starbucks in the morning or wherever it may be on a Friday night for dinner with my wife. You can feel the excitement by the fans and it’s exciting for all of us here in the building. It’s fun to see.”

It’s been a long time coming for a team that seemed like an annual postseason lock for a 15-year span starting in 1999.

When the Colts went 8-8 and missed the playoffs in 2015, fans largely considered it an aberration because Andrew Luck missed nine games with injuries.

Luck returned in 2016, but when the Colts again finished 8-8 and missed out, the debate changed. Many wondered if the team needed a fresh start and team owner Jim Irsay responded by firing general manager Ryan Grigson.

Then with Luck missing all of last season to recuperate from surgery on his throwing shoulder, the Colts staggered to a 4-12 mark, missed the playoffs for the third straight year and coach Chuck Pagano was fired.

Many outsiders figured the Colts needed a major overhaul, a perception that was reinforced by Josh McDaniels’ decision to back out of a deal to become Indy’s new head coach shortly after New England’s Super Bowl loss, Luck’s lingering rehab and Indy’s 1-5 start this season.

But general manager Chris Ballard and Reich, Indy’s second choice as coach, have put together a winning combination by staying the course.

The balanced offense Grigson and Pagano craved for so long finally materialized after Indy (8-6) found two key solutions to its offensive line woes in the draft — left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith. Luck benefited by turning in the best season of his career and the Colts have overcome injuries to win seven of their past eight.

“A good leader will get guys to do what he wants them to do and believe in themselves whether you’re 1-5 or 7-1 through the last eight games,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said Tuesday.

“It’s obviously his leadership abilities and then Frank being an example of what we want players to be. What I mean by that, is that we want players to be the same guy every single day. … Frank definitely does that because he is the same guy every day.”

The defense might be the biggest surprise.

After years of languishing near the bottom of the league rankings, first-year coordinator Matt Eberflus has worked wonders.

Originally hired by McDaniels and inherited by Reich, with a strong recommendation from Ballard, the Colts made Pro Bowl receivers Amari Cooper and DeAndre Hopkins look ordinary the past two weeks while holding NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott to 87 yards rushing and pitching their first shutout in more than four years on Sunday.

They’ve consistently put pressure on quarterbacks, forced turnovers and against the Cowboys delivered big play after big play with a simple philosophy — run to the ball.

“Hustle is a learned skill,” Eberflus said. “It is the coach’s job to stay on it with the player to give him the feedback on every single play. That starts way back in OTAs (offseason team activities, all the way through minicamp and then through training camp every single play.”

Now comes the hard part — finishing strong.

A victory over the struggling Giants, coupled with a loss by either Pittsburgh or Baltimore this weekend, would give the Colts control of their destiny in the season finale at Tennessee (8-6), a team Luck has never lost to as a starter.

It’s enough to get everybody outside the locker room talking about potential playoff matchups for the first time in four years.

“We’re playing great football,” receiver T.Y. Hilton said after Indy’s most recent victory. “Right now, you’re either the train or you’re on the tracks. Right now, we’re rolling, so you better get on the train.”

Notes: Indy put starting defensive tackle Al Woods (foot) and backup linebacker Skai Moore on injured reserve Tuesday. Safety J.J. Wilcox was signed to the active roster, taking the spot of Woods. Former Indiana University star linebacker Tegray Scales was added to the practice squad.

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