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Young Colts team defies odds by closing in on playoff berth


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INDIANAPOLIS — If rebuilding teams aren’t supposed to make the playoffs, someone forgot to tell the Indianapolis Colts. That, or they simply ignore the adage.

Either way, the Colts (9-4) are on the cusp of achieving what seemed impossible when the dismantling began less than a year ago.

One more win, and they’re in the postseason. They even have an outside shot of taking AFC South Division.

Surprised? Even the Colts have a hard time explaining how they’ve orchestrated one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NFL history.

“I don’t know what it’s all about. I can’t put my finger on it,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “But I’m enjoying the benefits, and we are going to keep doing our thing.”

If they do, the Colts can secure the playoffs with a win Sunday at AFC South leader Houston. They travel to Kansas City the following week, then conclude the regular-season Dec. 30 against the visiting Texans, who were 11-1 heading into Monday night’s game at New England.

Though winning the division is an extreme long shot, securing a wild-card playoff spot is all but assured. The Colts — in conjunction with unlikely scenarios involving the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets — would have to lose all their remaining games not to get in.

And if Indianapolis does get in, it will mark only the second time in NFL history a team has made playoffs one year after losing 14 games the previous season. The Colts finished 2-14 last season and were torn down immediately thereafter.

Team president Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian, head coach Jim Caldwell and, most notably, quarterback Peyton Manning were swept out in a housecleaning punctuated by a massive roster overhaul.

Given little chance to win more than the two games they won last year, the Colts would be the No. 5 seed if the AFC playoffs started today — a stunning position for a team that was ranked dead-last in the preseason power rankings.

“It feels great. Obviously, night-and-day compared to last year,” said linebacker Dwight Freeney, one of only a few Pro Bowl veterans who returned from last season. “The feeling around the locker room is tremendous, but that being said, by no means am I, or we, satisfied of where we are.

“I’m not saying it’s a disappointment if we don’t win it all, but that’s our mentality. We go out there thinking ‘win it all,’ and that’s it.”

Winners of seven of their past eight games, the Colts have shown no signs of taking backward steps.

Although they regularly rally from second-half deficits, as they did during Sunday’s 27-23 win against visiting Tennessee, the Colts have demonstrated uncanny resolve despite an inordinate number of first- and second-year players and a staggering injury list.

Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has engineered six fourth-quarter game-winning drives, and fellow first-year players have routinely made vital plays at critical times.

For example, rookie tight end Dwayne Allen made a clutch first-down catch in the final minute of Sunday’s game that allowed the Colts to run out the clock and secure the win.

Allen attributes the young players’ veteran-like performances to interim coach Bruce Arians’ insistence that they are not young players anymore.

“Coach Arians told us in training camp that we have a couple weeks of training camp to grow up,” Allen said. “Whenever the season kicks off, we aren’t rookies anymore. We don’t need to play like that.

“He’s been holding us accountable for our actions and not allowing us to just say, ‘Oh, I’m a rookie,’ and feel down on ourselves.”

Barring a total collapse in the final three games, everything is looking up for a team that — five months ago — was expected to contend for the No. 1 draft pick.

Instead, the Colts are competing for a dramatically different prize, which is very nearly in their grasp.

That would be the playoffs.

“The expectations are high. We have a lot to play for this season,” cornerback Darius Butler said. “Guys are playing hard. We’re making plays and winning games.”

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