ANDERSON — Robert Mathis can’t quite pinpoint the moment the Indianapolis Colts’ season turned around, but he knows the impetus.
A players-only meeting was held sometime in November — or maybe it was early December — and all the team’s grievances were aired. After a strong start, blowout losses against St. Louis and Arizona left Indianapolis looking like a shell of its former self.
Mathis and some of his veteran teammates — guys like Antoine Bethea and Cory Redding — had seen enough. They called the players together and hashed everything out.
It was no time to spare feelings. No topic was off the table. Any player who felt the need to speak spoke.
And head coach Chuck Pagano was happy with the results.
“(Mathis) let me know (the meeting had occurred), and then he let me know they’d be letting me stick around for the end of the season,” Pagano joked Monday, one day after the Colts closed out a second straight 11-5 season with a 30-10 thumping of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It’s easy to poke fun about now, with Indianapolis preparing to host Kansas City (11-5) in an AFC wild-card playoff game Saturday. But it was no laughing matter a month or so ago.
The defense had become a sieve, and the offense was stuck in neutral. The Colts somehow found a way to pull out wins against divisional opponents every other week, but in between were some brutal losses.
By scores like 38-8 at home against the Rams and 40-11 on the road against the Cardinals. It all came to a head on Dec. 8 in Cincinnati, when Indianapolis fell behind the playoff-bound Bengals 21-0 early in the third quarter.
Second-year quarterback Andrew Luck suddenly jolted the offense to life with four touchdown passes in the final two quarters, and the Colts pulled within a touchdown at 21-14 before ultimately falling 42-28.
A week later, the defense got into the act during a 25-3 thrashing of the Houston Texans. That was the start of a season-ending three-game winning streak that included an impressive 23-7 whipping of the Chiefs two weeks ago and saw the defense surrender just a pair of touchdowns over the final 12 quarters.
“No personnel shifts. No change in schemes. No world-changing type of deals,” said Mathis, who has become a leading candidate to be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. “It’s just holding guys accountable. If you’re not doing your job, you’re going to be called out within ourselves, not in the media or anything like that. It’s guys being accountable.”
Accountability. It’s what the players-only meeting was all about. And it likely saved the Colts’ season.
Indianapolis took a commanding lead in the AFC South with a victory at Tennessee on Nov. 14, making a playoff berth a near certainty. But the Colts didn’t much resemble a postseason contender.
While Pagano was preaching the need to “catch fire” and build momentum for a playoff run, Indianapolis continued its Jekyll-and-Hyde on-field performances.
Then the veterans decided it was time for a talk. And the Colts determined how they wanted this season to be remembered.
“These players hold each other to a high standard,” Pagano said. “We as coaches hold ourselves and the players to a high standard. But when the accountability comes from the players, from your locker room, that’s when you really have something special.”
The real prize lies ahead.
The Colts have never hidden the fact that success this season will be measured by a trip to New York City in early February. All but 19 players on the 53-man roster have been the playoffs before, but this franchise hasn’t won a postseason game since 2009.
That season ended with a loss to the New Orleans Saints at Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. Last season ended with a loss to the eventual NFL-champion Baltimore Ravens on the road in the wild-card round.
This year, Indianapolis hopes to rewrite the script.
“Our goal, just like every other team, is to hoist the Lombardi Trophy,” running back Donald Brown said. “That’s our goal. That’s our mindset. That’s why you play this game. Our work’s not done. There’s still a lot left to accomplish.”