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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Indianapolis Colts of a year ago were in no better shape than the Kansas City Chiefs of this season. Their offense couldn't score, their defense couldn't stop anybody, and they had just one win when mid-December rolled around.
At least Kansas City has two wins to show for its season of discontent.
But when the Chiefs gaze across the field Sunday, they'll see a franchise that has made one of the league's surprising turnarounds. The Colts will be out to secure a playoff berth that few expected, and in doing so, give the Chiefs a reason to believe better days are still ahead.
"I knew coming into the locker room, it was a confident bunch of guys and a talented bunch of guys, so I don't think anybody worried about what happened last year," said Andrew Luck, the quarterback the Colts managed to draft first overall as a result of their 2-14 finish.
"We were just focused on getting better," Luck said, "and thankfully we've won some games and hopefully put ourselves in a spot to win some more."
The Colts (9-5) blew their first shot at clinching a playoff berth last Sunday, when they lost to Houston. But they can still get in with a win over the Chiefs (2-12) or in their season-finale against the Texans, or if the Steelers lose one of their two remaining games.
Pittsburgh plays Cincinnati on Sunday before finishing up against lowly Cleveland.
"I believe this game will determine if they go to the playoffs or not," Chiefs safety Eric Berry said, "so I'm expecting everything from them."
Expectations have certainly risen in Indianapolis since last season.
The reclamation began when the Colts released the injured, 35-year-old Peyton Manning in March and decided to draft Luck over Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. New general manager Ryan Grigson then cut defensive captains Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt, running back Joseph Addai and tight end Dallas Clark to free up space under the salary cap.
Veteran center Jeff Saturday and wide receiver Pierre Garcon walked in free agency, and Grigson filled the holes through savvy draft decisions and with cost-effective veterans.
"The young players came in and listened to our veteran leadership," said interim coach Bruce Arians, who has filled in admirably while Chuck Pagano undergoes treatment for leukemia.
"We have some veterans who have won a lot of ballgames here," Arians said, "and they did a great job of grabbing those guys and telling them how important they would be to win."
That was never more evident than last Sunday.
Luck threw for 186 yards and two TDs without an interception. Tight ends Colby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, drafted in the second and third rounds, combined to make four catches for 57 yards and had one of the scores. T.Y. Hilton, another third-round choice, had three catches for 78 yards and the other touchdown, and fifth-round pick Vick Ballard ran for 105 yards.
Granted, it all came in a losing effort, but it also demonstrates how much the Colts are relying on rookies to return the franchise to its winning ways.
"Last week, I think rookies account or 82 percent of our offense," Arians said. "They've gotten so many snaps, now we don't even consider them rookies."
The Chiefs are in a similar situation as the Colts were heading into this offseason.
They're neck-and-neck with Jacksonville for the first overall draft choice, and it's widely expected that they'll spend it on a quarterback after getting inconsistent — at times downright lousy — play out of Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn this season.
There's no Luck, of course. But guys such as Geno Smith of West Virginia and Matt Barkley of Southern Cal could give Kansas City a similar young talent around which they could retool one of the league's worst offenses.
The Chiefs haven't drafted a quarterback in the first round since 1983.
Then there's the question of who will make that choice.
The Colts fired vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, Chris, the Colts' general manager, during a purge in January. A couple weeks later, coach Jim Caldwell was shown the door.
Kansas City fans have been pining for similar moves all season.
There was a "black out" during a game at Cincinnati intended to mourn the lost season and send a message of change to ownership, and some fans have pooled their money to hire airplanes towing banners asking for general manager Scott Pioli to be fired prior to home games.
"Losing has been frustrating, however you lose," said Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, whose job also appears to be on the line. "It doesn't make a difference how you lose, if it's the offense, the defense, special teams. When you lose, it's frustrating."
The Colts lost three of their first five games, but rattled off four straight wins as the rookies got their feet under them. They followed up a loss with three more wins, and now have a chance to atone for last Sunday's disappointment.
"We need to get in the playoffs. That's all we're thinking about is getting there," Arians said. "We're not there yet. We're going to have to beat a good team on the road."
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