INDIANAPOLIS -- The Colts were supposed to be a few years away.
Apparently, the future is now.
There were plenty of reasons to write Indianapolis off this season. The Colts were coming off a dismal 2-14 campaign, one of the worst in franchise history and a stunning dropoff for a franchise that has played in two Super Bowls since the turn of the century.
There was a major offseason housecleaning. The familiar names of general manager Bill Polian and quarterback Peyton Manning were replaced by Ryan Grigson and rookie prodigy Andrew Luck, and coach Chuck Pagano replaced Jim Caldwell. Things were moving along as planned until Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia early this season.
With all those changes and challenges, no way this team could flip the switch and go back to being the old Colts right away, right?
Riding the arm of their new quarterback and the leadership of interim coach Bruce Arians, the Colts are in the playoff hunt at 9-4 and are in prime position to close in on the division-leading Houston Texans. The Colts trail the Texans by two games in the AFC South with three games to go, but they play Houston twice in the final three weeks. If the Colts win out, they win the division. That was nearly an unfathomable thought just a few months ago.
The Colts don't see any reason why the feel-good story of the NFL season can't get even better.
"Obviously, night and day compared to last year," linebacker Dwight Freeney said. "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."
The Colts are the true sense of team, in part, because Grigson sought players who could fit together.
"Ryan has done a great job of finding guys to keep filling holes and once a team bonds, I think that they play for each other," Arians said. "Talent really doesn't matter. We've always said talent would never be the issue why we win or lose this year. We have enough talent to win. It's just a matter of believing it, believing in each other and trusting each other."
The Colts have proven to be resilient. They have an 8-1 record in games decided by one possession or less this season, including seven consecutive one-possession games.
Colts games rarely are a pretty sight. Even at five games over .500, they've allowed more points than they've scored. They got drilled 59-24 at New England, then came back and won three straight.
Much of the credit goes to Luck. He has set a new franchise record (3,792) for passing yards by a rookie, topping Manning's mark of 3,739 yards. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton holds the NFL rookie record with 4,051 yards.
Luck hasn't been perfect -- he has a low completion percentage (54.9) and is tied for the league high with 18 interceptions -- but he gets it done in clutch situations. Luck got credit for his sixth fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drive for the Colts when he led the comeback against Tennessee It's the most such comebacks by a rookie since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.
Indy's latest comeback came last Sunday, when the Colts trailed Tennessee 20-7 at halftime before winning 27-23.
"I think it's nice being in the fourth quarter when you know you have a chance to win or a chance to ice the game," Luck said. "Whatever that situation is, everybody on the team offensively, defensively and special teams, just plays football. They're not worried about the scoreboard too much, not worried about what's going on. I think they're aware of the situation and go out there and play football to the best of our ability. I think it's just not overthinking all of the situations at this point."
Things started off poorly for the Colts this season. They were thrashed 41-21 at Chicago and the fans weren't shocked.
Things turned after Pagano's diagnosis. A team that already was moving towards unity bonded entirely in hopes that Pagano would recover from treatment and regain enough strength to coach in the playoffs.
The week Pagano was diagnosed, the 1-2 Colts welcomed Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers to town. Luck won that duel, throwing for a Colts rookie record 362 yards as Indianapolis beat the Packers 30-27. Luck later passed for an NFL rookie record 433 yards in a win over Miami.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne has helped Luck by having one of the best seasons of his 12-year career.
He has 94 catches for 1,220 yards this season. His catch total ranks fourth in the NFL and his yardage total ranks third. He moved past Andre Reed last Sunday for 10th place on the league's all-time receptions list (956). This all has come from a player who thought he might be done in Indianapolis after last season, his worst since 2003.
Wayne has been equally valuable as a mentor. Five of the Colts top seven pass catchers -- receivers T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill, tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and running back Vick Ballard -- are in their first year. The rookies say Luck is patient with them because they are in the same boat.
"A guy runs the wrong route or breaks the wrong way, he understands because he's a young guy, too. If you're dealing with a veteran quarterback, you might get fussed out or something like that, and that might cause you to lose a little bit of confidence," Allen said. "Andrew's a young guy, just like us. He understands that we all make mistakes, him included, so he tries to make us feel as comfortable as possible when we make those mistakes."
The defense hasn't been dominant, but it has been effective enough to keep the Colts close. Robert Mathis and Freeney, both moved from defensive end to linebacker in the Colts' new 3-4 defense. Mathis has seven sacks in 12 games, but Freeney has just two sacks and seven tackles this season.
The top tackler is linebacker Jerrell Freeman, an undrafted free agent who played in Canada for three years before the Colts brought him back to the states.
The kicking game has been strong. Adam Vinatieri, now 39, has made 23 of 29 field goals, including 8 of 9 from between 40 and 49 yards and 4 of 7 from 50 or more yards. Arians said punter Pat McAfee is having a Pro Bowl year, averaging 48.8 yards per punt.
So there are a lot of good pieces, and the Colts have their inspiration in Pagano. Still, this is so much more than winning for their coach.
"You can't win nine ball games with just smoke and mirrors, not in this league," Arians said. "You can't win seven-of-eight in the last minutes without having guys that pass protect, get open, get the ball back for you defensively and a quarterback that can sling it down there and get touchdowns."
With an overwhelmingly young roster, the best may be yet to come.
"We are still learning, still building, still growing and just enjoying the moment by working the process," defensive end Cory Redding said. "Guys are just coming in and doing everything they can to help the team win."