INDIANAPOLIS – A few weeks ago, the Miami-Indianapolis game was being billed as a simple contest between two high-profile rookie quarterbacks.
Now it's all about the playoffs.
Nine months after Indianapolis hosted the league's biggest party, the Super Bowl, Lucas Oil Stadium will be the center of attention again — as host of this weekend's biggest NFL surprise party.
"I wouldn't say it's weird," running back Vick Ballard said. "Like I've been saying all day, we work hard. It's just the fruits of our hard labor."
Players and coaches on both teams insisted all along they could win this season, regardless of what the doomsayers expected.
When training camps opened in late July, Miami was 27th in The Associated Press' Pro32 power rankings. Indy was 32nd.
It was understandable. Both teams struggled mightily in 2011, hired new coaches in the offseason, drafted quarterbacks in the first round, started them right away and entered the regular season with the second and ninth youngest teams in the NFL. Normally, that's no combination for success.
But over the last 12 months, each team has made monumental progress.
Seven games into 2011, the Dolphins and Colts were winless.
Seven games into 2012, they're both 4-3 and have turned the talk about Sunday's game into a discussion about playoff positioning — really.
"All of the people who doubted us and didn't think we were going to win a game this year, that's put a chip on our shoulder and helps us along the way," said Miami defensive end Olivier Vernon, the AFC's most recent special teams player of the week.
Indy followed a similar script.
The youngsters have continually repeated proclamations made by Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney that they didn't want to waste time rebuilding. They needed to win now. Mathis, an outside linebacker who made four Pro Bowl appearances at defensive end, took Indy's mantra a step further by handing out T-shirts with power rankings printed on the back. Indianapolis was listed in all caps in the last spot.
They're not in that spot anymore.
"We take pride in that," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "The T-shirts were to remind us of what people were saying, and from then on, we said the only thing that matters is what is said in the locker room."
There are plenty of explanations for the stunning turnarounds.
Indy has relied on the strong right arm of Andrew Luck, the first No. 1 draft pick to win four of his first seven games, and the veteran leadership of Wayne and others to get the offense jump-started.
The Colts are even showing modest improvement in two areas they've traditionally struggled — running the ball and playing defense. Indy is averaging 119.8 yards rushing over the past four games, is No. 7 against the pass and No. 19 in overall defense.
And if the season ended today, the Colts would actually be in the playoffs. That means little to the Colts.
"I realize this is no time to let up and start patting yourself on the back," Luck said this week. "We haven't accomplished squat in the grand scheme of things."
Miami has used a different blueprint, relying on a staunch defense.
The Dolphins are the league's best in stopping opponents on third-down, No. 2 in the red zone, No. 3 against the run and No. 5 in fewest points allowed. Defensive end Cameron Wake has 7½ sacks, all of which occurred in the last four games.
If that's not enough to make Colts interim coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians squirm, there's Ryan Tannehill and Reggie Bush.
"Reggie Bush is just like Chris Johnson, he can take it to the house at any point in time, he's never down," Arians said. "Reggie is a home-run hitter and we can't allow home runs. We can give up a single or two but no home runs."
The biggest question will be whether that highly hyped battle between Luck, the No. 1 overall draft pick, and Tannehill, the No. 8 overall selection, will actually happen.
Tannehill returned to practice Wednesday, three days after leaving last week's game in the first quarter with left knee and thigh injuries. He acknowledged afterward that he was not 100 percent.
The ultimate call will fall to coach Joe Philbin, who has repeatedly declined to say whether he'll play his productive rookie or Matt Moore, the quarterback who helped Miami win six of its last nine games last season.
Whoever Philbin chooses, the Dolphins expect to keep surprising everyone but themselves.
"They've prepared hard, and I think they're a hungry group. They're a bunch of guys that want to win. I don't know that I've really been surprised," Philbin said. "I told the players, 'There's nothing better in the National Football League than coming to work in November and December and, like you just mentioned, having meaningful games.' It's a lot of fun. It gets your juices going as it should."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL