Published November 20, 2014
Close your eyes and you still might think it's Peyton Manning.
With four games to play in the 2012 season, Manning's franchise successor -- rookie No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck -- has already established enough of a knack for late-stage heroics to put his Indianapolis Colts on the verge of improbable playoff participation.
They'll be home to face a Week 8 victim -- the Tennessee Titans, whom they beat in overtime in Nashville -- with a hope more drama won't be needed at Lucas Oil Stadium, where they haven't lost since the season's first month.
The 8-4 Colts also downed Green Bay and Minnesota with last-minute regulation drives in September and October, but they took things up a notch last week in Detroit when a scoring toss from Luck to Donnie Avery provided a 35-33 win on the game's last play.
The Avery pass, in fact, was just the final act in a rally that began with Indianapolis down 12 points with 2:39 remaining. Ultimately, it lifted the Colts to 7-1 in games decided by eight or fewer points, and Luck's final numbers included 391 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
"They don't know no better," veteran receiver Reggie Wayne said. "They just know to just keep playing. That's a credit just to the coaches. Just keeping the guys into it, keeping them to play toward the end, and guys just go out there and keep fighting and fighting till it's all over."
Old man Wayne, who's tied for third in the NFL with 88 receptions; and young man Luck are the signature elements of the remarkable turnaround for the Colts, who were an ugly 2-14 last year in Manning's final season on the roster as an injured observer.
In year one as the full-time signal-caller, the Stanford University product has six 300-yard games -- breaking Manning's rookie record -- and more wins as a QB drafted first overall than any of the 19 others since the 1970 merger. That list, incidentally, includes Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, Steve Bartkowski, John Elway, Vinny Testaverde, Troy Aikman, Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe, Manning, Tim Couch, Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton.
Two wins in the season's final four games -- along with a conference loss by their nearest wild card pursuers, either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh -- restarts an AFC playoff run for the Colts that had resulted in 11 berths in 13 seasons with a healthy Manning at the helm.
Their final three opponents include Houston, Kansas City and Houston again.
Indianapolis hasn't been left out of the playoffs for two straight years since 1997 and 1998 -- the last season with Jim Harbaugh as its starting QB, and the first with Manning.
"There's some really good football teams behind us and we just have to take care of our own business," interim coach Bruce Arians said.
In the initial 19-13 defeat of Tennessee on Oct. 28, Luck completed 26 of 38 passes for 297 yards, an interception and 16-yard TD to running back Vick Ballard in overtime. Another rookie, T.Y. Hilton, had five catches for 35 yards in that game but has become a much more significant factor since with three 100-yard efforts in the last five.
Against Detroit, he caught six balls for exactly 100 yards.
The Colts have more than doubled the Titans on the scoreboard in the last nine games in Indy, winning eight times - including a 27-13 triumph last Dec. 18 in which Donald Brown galloped for 161 yards and a touchdown.
Last year, it was the team's first win after an 0-13 start. This year, they face a Tennessee squad entering as the league's 31st-best scoring defense -- allowing a less-than-gaudy 29.9 points per game.
Things have gone little better on offense for the Titans in recent days, resulting in 29 combined points in losses to Jacksonville and Houston after a 37-point outburst in a win at Miami on Nov. 11.
Injuries haven't helped and won't going forward, especially a season-ending broken leg sustained by right tackle David Stewart last week, alongside a knee injury that'll keep right guard Steve Hutchinson on the shelf for what could be the rest of the schedule as well.
That spells trouble for quarterback Jake Locker, who was sacked six times against Houston in addition to three interceptions and two lost fumbles. In fact, in the last two games, the second-year man has been the source of seven of the Titans' eight turnovers.
Locker threw for 309 yards and a touchdown against the Texans, while Chris Johnson ran for 51 yards on 13 carries after averaging 122 yards in six previous games. In the initial matchup with Indianapolis this season, Johnson had 99 yards on 21 carries. In his last two games in Indiana, he's gone for 94 yards on 35 attempts.
"It seems like this is one of those years where what can go wrong is going wrong, and we're getting challenged in a lot of different ways," said second- year coach Mike Munchak, whose franchise hasn't seen the playoffs since 2008. "The goal is to be a lot better in four weeks than you are right now. I mean that's all you can work on."
The Colts lead the all-time series, 22-13, and have won 15 of the past 19 encounters. Interim coach Arians won his lone meeting with the Titans in October, while Munchak split two games with Indianapolis last season before dropping the third game this year.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
For the love of Curtis Painter, the Colts have become the fifth most-prolific passing team in the league through 12 games -- racking up an average of 285.6 yards.
Contrarily, the Titans are 26th in the league against the aerial game, allowing 257.5 yards alongside a league-worst 69.5 opposition completion percentage and 24 touchdowns that are tied for second-worst.
Not surprisingly then, Luck may look down the field to find youngsters Hilton and LaVon Brazill in addition to veterans Wayne and Donnie Avery. Indianapolis blitzed the Lions last week for 16.3 yards per catch, a number they may approach indoors against a vulnerable foe.
The bounce-back from the ugly loss to New England was started with a tough win against Buffalo and continued with the thriller against Detroit last week. Now, with the playoffs firmly within grasp, expect Luck to continue the progression that's proven how special the Indianapolis brass thought he was to begin with.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 28, Titans 17