Published December 06, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS – Playoff talk is busting out all over Indianapolis.
Everywhere except the Colts locker room.
"I do think we understand where we are, the situation that we're in," rookie quarterback Andrew Luck said.
For most of the Colts (8-4), Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans will be a new experience.
Nearly one-third of Indy's players, 17 in all, are either rookies or have one year of pro experience and have never been involved in an NFL playoff chase.
Of the few longtime veterans, only a handful of Colts such as safety Antoine Bethea, linebackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, kicker Adam Vinatieri and receiver Reggie Wayne are left from Indy's two Super Bowl appearances. A few others, such as offensive linemen Mike McGlynn and Winston Justice, defensive end Cory Redding and safety Tom Zbikowski have made playoff pushes in other cities.
But with the postseason now coming into focus, most of these players are learning the proper protocol.
"I haven't taken a peek yet," said fifth-year receiver Donnie Avery, who never played in a postseason game with the Rams or Titans.
It's pretty simple. Indy qualifies with two more wins and anything other than a tie in the Dec. 23 Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game, and getting a season sweep over Tennessee (4-8) gets them halfway there.
Things have changed quite a bit since the last two meetings in this AFC South rivalry.
In October, Tennessee appeared to have the upper hand against an Indy squad that hadn't yet won on the road. But Vick Ballard's twisting, backward dive inside the front pylon gave the Colts a 19-13 overtime victory that seemingly changed the season for both teams.
The Colts have won four of five since; the Titans (4-8) have lost three of four.
A year ago, when the Titans last visited Indy, it seemed their three-game losing streak at Lucas Oil Stadium was sure to end. Instead, the Colts ended a 13-game winless streak and avoided possibly going 0-16.
This time, the Titans (4-8) have a new mission — winning in Indy for the first time in five years and using this game to help salvage something out of a disappointing season.
"You would like to finish strong here in these last four games and this is an opportunity against a division opponent where we feel we can go down there and have a great game," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "That's what we need to do, and that's the only thing that's going to make you feel better about a season is winning."
It's been a rough season by almost any measure for the Titans.
They are ranked 23rd in total offense, 27th in total defense, and after last year's first-round draft pick, Jack Locker, has thrown just eight touchdowns and seven interceptions while missing five games.
Chris Johnson started slow before picking up steam. He now needs 7 yards for his fifth straight 1,000-yard season.
And the offensive line is a mess. Tennessee will be missing right tackle David Stewart (broken leg) and Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson (right knee), who both went on injured reserve this week, leaving left tackle Michael Roos (right knee) as the only remaining starter from Tennessee's expected lineup.
"We're going to have to shuffle it around a little bit," Munchak said. "That's what this league is all about. We've had to do more of it this year on the offensive line than we probably have in a long time."
The Colts, meanwhile, seem to be getting stronger by the week.
Freeney and Mathis, who spent the first half of the season fighting off injuries, are playing together. Luck has reduced the miscues, Wayne has been his usually reliable self and the Colts rookies are becoming bigger contributors.
Coach Chuck Pagano has finished chemotherapy treatments and could be back at the stadium for his third straight home game, and interim coach Bruce Arians is trying to move within one victory of the league record for wins after a midseason coaching change.
But the Colts aren't talking about any of those things — or the playoff spot they are closing in on.
All they want to do is focus on the Titans and keep playing good football.
"I felt like we could be a good team, we could compete," Wayne said. "Part of being so young, I don't think you could expect four, five comeback wins from behind in the fourth quarter when you're a young team, but we've been doing it. It's helped us grow. Guys are starting to get more understanding of what's going on around us, and it's been special so far, so we've just got to keep this thing going."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL