INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Luck repeats the word each week that aptly describes the state of his Indianapolis Colts.
As in, the Colts’ focus instilled by first-year head coach Frank Reich is to get 1 percent better each day. Luck is better because he’s healthy. His offensive line is better — check that, it’s been the best of his seven-year career. Running back Marlon Mack has provided a better ground game with five 100-yard rushing efforts. A young defense with sensational rookie linebacker and NFL leading tackler Darius Leonard has continually been better.
That’s why the sixth-seeded, six-point underdog Colts (11-6) sound confident as they prepare for Saturday’s challenging AFC Divisional Playoff road trip to face the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Colts are better than at any time since their last playoff appearance in 2014. What hasn’t changed is his how Luck and these Colts have handled success.
“Certainly there were a few more lights on the sidelines and a few more people out there,” Luck said of the Colts’ 21-7 AFC Wild Card Playoff win at Houston last Saturday. “It was a loud and raucous atmosphere and we are expecting probably one of the louder atmospheres in football again at Arrowhead (Stadium) in an awesome atmosphere.
“But once the game gets going it’s all the same. It’s the same-sized field, same amount of players. You’ve got to do the same things well. You’ve got to play with technique. You’ve got to play with fundamentals and you’ve got to play with discipline.”
The best part is the future should be even better. Second-year general manager Chris Ballard will have more cap space than any other NFL team, about $120 million, to add key pieces in the offseason. And most of the key Colts are already under contract.
So win or lose against the Chiefs, the Colts have sent a message that they’re not just better, they’re a championship contender. And they will be considered such even more so next season. They’ve won 10 of 11 games after a 1-5 start and knocked off some decent competition to get to this point. The playoffs are about which team gets hot, and no team has been hotter than this one.
Lest anyone forget, it all starts at the most important position. Luck has arguably enjoyed the best season of his seven-year career. A year ago at this time, after he missed a 4-12 implosion due to shoulder surgery, he’s admitted there was doubt if he would ever play again. He’s now considered a top candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year after completing a career-best 67.3 percent of his passes, almost 4 percent better than before. His 98.7 passer rating is also a personal best. His 39 TD passes are one shy of his previous best, second only to when he had 40 in 2014.
Neither he nor his Colts teammates take for granted the opportunity in front of them. But they’re also not blinded by the bright spotlight of its significance, either.
“I think you eliminate distractions, which guys have done all year,” Luck said. “We are in the same mode we have been in for a while. One, today is about improving. It’s about being 1 percent better, 1 percent better, 1 percent better and the goal at the end of the week is be 1-0. You have heard us say that before and we have lived it.
“Maybe there’s a little bit more chatter outside, but that doesn’t affect how we prepare. It doesn’t affect what we do, how we operate. So the focus has been great so far and will continue to be that way.”
Reich smiles when asked about Luck’s insistence to stick with the same routine each week. The three-time Pro Bowl passer knows what works for him.
“Rigid would be a good description,” Reich said of Luck. “There’s no bending or compromising and that’s good, we like the routine. We really like the routine. I saw that going back through the whole offseason and how he was rehabbing through the shoulder thing. So whether it’s been that physically when I see him in the weight room and what I know he does not just in the meeting room but with film and on the practice field, he’s the same way in the weight room, the same way he studies and I just think there’s a lot of value in that.
“Everything is planned out. I learned that early on, too. He always wanted the schedule, he was coming to me early on when this whole thing got started and he’d have his schedule printed out for two or three weeks. Every day from whatever time in the morning until whatever time at night, everything was charted out through the week. What he was doing and when. I just think players, in general, thrive when you have that routine.”
While so much attention is deservedly given to how a Chiefs offense led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the leading NFL MVP candidate, was No. 1 in scoring and TD passes, nobody should sleep on the fact that he’s facing a Colts defense that finished 11th in fewest yards allowed and 10th in points allowed. And no NFL team since Week 7 allowed fewer points than the Colts’ 16.4 per game.
On the flip side, Luck has been analyzing a Chiefs defense that was 31st in total yards allowed and 24th in points allowed. The most obvious point of emphasis is blocking Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones, whose 15.5 sacks ranked third int he league, as well as Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford, who had 13 sacks.
But the Colts proved again against the Texans as well as in the regular-season finale at Tennessee and a convincing 23-0 home shutout win over Dallas last month that Luck doesn’t have to do it all to make this offense click.
Mack is the first Colts back with four 100-yard rushing games in a season since Joseph Addai had as many in 2007. And Mack ran for a career-high 148 yards and one TD against the Texans.
When the Colts got off to their lackluster start and started to rebound, Reich reiterated that the team needed to be balanced offensively and couldn’t just rely on Luck to shoulder the load with monster passing games. Three of Mack’s five 100-yard rushing efforts have come in the last four games.
“Shoot, we know how important running the football is,” Luck said. “In every game we go in, the goal is to run the football effectively. That makes everything simpler and in a sense easier. So the mindset is always the same going into every game – run first, and protection and passing is second certainly. As we know, games have a funny way of playing out sometimes and that script gets reversed every now and then but to run the ball is important. On the road, in the elements, it’s especially important as well.”
It’s often said that playoff teams survive and advance if they can run the ball and stop the run. In today’s NFL, the emphasis seems shifted on how teams pass and defend the pass. But there’s still something to be said for the team that can wear down an opponent by grinding it out, especially if the bitter January cold hinders how the ball is thrown and caught on Saturday.
“When you can run it effectively and be in second-and-manageable, third-and-manageable and put long drives together, that’s certainly positive for the offense,” Luck said.
So fasten the seatbelts and expect a most entertaining showdown in KC. Both teams are expected to put up some points in what could be a shootout.
And when it’s finished, if the Colts advance to the AFC title game, it’s one more memorable accomplishment in a surprising season that has been a testament to just how far this team has come in a short time.
And should Luck and the Colts lose, it will sting for some time but can’t detract from what’s been done. The Colts will be better for this experience, win or lose.
And expect them to be even better, dare we suggest more than 1 percent, next season.