The Indianapolis Colts have provided one of the feel-good stories of this NFL season.
They went 2-14 in 2011, then early this season, coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. Riding a wave of emotion and the arm of superstar rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts rolled to a surprising 6-3 start.
The book hit a rough chapter last Sunday when Indianapolis was routed 59-24 at New England. Now the Colts host Buffalo on Sunday in a game that could have a lot to do with how happy the ending will be.
Indianapolis still plays Detroit on Dec. 2 and AFC-leading Houston twice down the stretch, so losing this game against the struggling Bills would be costly.
"We are in a position now where if we win out, we're in," Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. "There are a lot of teams that want our position. They are going to treat every game like a playoff game and we need to do the same. Every game from now on is going to be real crucial for this ball club."
Luck said older teammates have helped him understand the importance of Sunday's game.
"This is a new experience for me, everything about this year," he said. "But it does seem to be that way, the way the veterans talk about it and the feeling around the building. You get a sense that the games mean that much more."
The game is critical for the Bills as well. Buffalo is two games behind the Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers for AFC wild card spots and can't afford any wrong steps.
"The Colts are ahead of us in the standings," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "This is almost a playoff game for us in terms of one we have to have at this point in the season. We do look at it in those regards."
Buffalo is in emergency mode partly because of inconsistent play on defense. The Bills have allowed 35 or more points five times this season despite some major additions to the unit in the offseason.
"If I could put my finger on it I would have already solved the problem," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "We just have not been able to do it yet. Hopefully we are improving and getting better. Our defense is getting to know each other a little bit better with the new scheme. Hopefully we are coming around defensively and we have to be more consistent in areas offensively, red zone and third down, to be where we need to be there."
Indianapolis has been consistent at home with a 4-1 record at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts haven't had back-to-back losses all season.
"I think it talks about the veteran leadership in our locker room," interim coach Bruce Arians said. "They're the best I've been around and they're continually harping on these young guys on what it takes to win, and we're going to come back. Fortunately, we were able to come back home after those losses and win. This is another one that we need to make sure that we take care of this home-field advantage that we have, and the 12th man again needs to be outstanding like they've always been, especially against this offense."
Arians is concerned about Buffalo's attack, especially Fitzpatrick, running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, and receiver Stevie Johnson.
"Ryan's a streaky player," Arians said. "Fitzpatrick, I mean he can really get on a roll. They've got speed. They can spread you out, much like New England. They get it out quick. They're hard to sack."
Spiller has rushed for 723 yards and four touchdowns this season and has 31 catches for 336 yards.
"He is fast," Fitzpatrick said. "He has some real juice. He is a guy that can make people miss. If you get him out in space, he does a great job of setting up blocks. A lot of times guys will feel like they have an angle on him to take him down on the sideline and he will quickly prove to them that they do not. So I think the biggest thing with him is speed."
Buffalo's offensive firepower leaves the Colts with little room for mistakes. Luck fired three interceptions in the loss at New England last Sunday, and he knows he can't afford another week like that. For all the hype around him, he's thrown 12 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
"Turnovers kill you in this league, especially against good teams," he said. "You can't give them gifts. They'll embarrass you if you do."
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