Colts become surprise contestant on championship weekend
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois never bought the notion Indianapolis couldn’t contend for a Super Bowl this season.
He had too much faith in his teammates and coaches to accept that perception.
Now, one day after a surprising 24-13 divisional-round win at Denver, the most unlikely entrant of championship weekend finds itself with a seemingly unlikely Super Bowl scenario.
“We expected to be here, even though no one else may have expected us to be here,” Jean Francois said. “We’re looking at accomplishing something, and we haven’t finished it yet.”
Outsiders aren’t the only ones surprised that the Colts are here.
Just last week, team owner Jim Irsay told reporters he didn’t anticipate things going this smoothly or this fast after he released Peyton Manning in 2012 and started over with a rookie quarterback, a first-time head coach and a first-time general manager.
But Andrew Luck has been better than advertised, Indy has embraced Chuck Pagano and his philosophy and general manager Ryan Grigson has put enough pieces in place to win 11 regular-season games in three straight seasons.
The two-time AFC South champs have gone one step deeper in the playoffs each year of the Luck-Pagano-Grigson era, and now they are just one win away from their third Super Bowl trip in eight years.
“You’re excited that you’ve done so much so soon but you also feel the weight. You know where you have to go,” Irsay said. “We know what we have to do as an organization and that’s to get to the top of the mountain. That’s what our goals are as we go into this playoff run.”
Getting there this time will take a monumental effort.
After eliminating Manning on his home turf, the Colts (13-5) face Tom Brady on his home field. Brady is 13-3 at home in the playoffs, 3-0 against the Colts, including last year’s 43-22 divisional-round drubbing.
It’s exactly the road Irsay expected to face when he told The Associated Press last month that Indy’s likely path to a championship would go through Denver and New England, then either Green Bay or Seattle, who will square off in the NFC championship game.
Most thought winning any of those games would be too much to ask of Indy’s young team. The Colts never saw it that way.
“Faith is believing in what you don’t see or can’t see, and the reward for believing is you’ll get to see it,” Pagano said Monday. “We’ve got a bunch of guys in this building that believe in what we’re doing and believe in each other. If you can’t speak it into existence, it’ll never happen.”
The indications that Indy was ahead of schedule were there most of the season.
During a five-game winning streak in September and October, the Colts allowed 75 points and the run defense was on the verge of cracking the top 10. Andrew Luck was throwing for 300 yards on a weekly basis and led the league in touchdown passes thanks in part to an evolving ground game.
Then, late in the season, the Colts defense played well enough to win five of its last six games despite an uncharacteristic rash of turnovers and penalties. In the locker room, players and coaches insisted they were getting “hot” at just the right time.
The critics, meanwhile, complained Indy’s success was largely built against sub-par teams and pointing to their 2-4 mark against playoff-bound teams and blowout losses at Pittsburgh and Dallas and at home against the Patriots (13-4) as evidence the Colts would be eliminated quickly.
Even a convincing 26-10 wild-card round win over Cincinnati didn’t change those thoughts.
Sunday’s win over Denver will help, even though the Colts remain the biggest underdog left in the playoff field.
The Colts don’t care. They’ve got bigger things on their mind.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” Jean Francois said. “As long as the people in this locker room believe, we can accomplish our goals.”
Notes: Pagano said the Colts came out of Sunday’s game with no major injuries. ... Pagano also explained that Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, was inactive for the Broncos’ game because he was not as skilled on special teams as the recently signed Michael Hill. Richardson worked out on special teams last week, but Pagano said he has not been asked to play on those units previously and that Hill was brought in, partially, because of his knack on special teams. ... The Colts believe they will have the same starting combination on the offensive line for the third straight week. The most recent time that happened was Weeks 1 to 3.