INDIANAPOLIS — The fear entering this season was that outside linebacker Robert Mathis was the only proven pass rusher on the Indianapolis Colts' roster.
Turns out he's the only one they needed.
In his first season without longtime running mate Dwight Freeney, the former fifth-round draft pick out of Alabama A&M set a franchise record with 19.5 sacks and now sits atop the team's all-time list with 111 quarterback takedowns in his 11-year career.
By leading the NFL in sacks this season, he's been named the inaugural winner of the Deacon Jones Award. He was announced as the Colts' only Pro Bowl participant last week, and he was named to The Associated Press' all-pro team for the first time Friday.
The honors might not be done rolling in. Mathis is a leading candidate — alongside Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly and St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn — for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.
"I'd be shocked if he didn't receive that award," Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano said. "Robert, does he really care? If you know Robert like we all know Robert, he wants to win this game. He wants to be in New York in February. That's his No. 1 goal and only goal right now."
Mathis set his sights on Super Bowl XLVIII as early as training camp this summer. The road to New York begins for the Colts (11-5) today at Lucas Oil Stadium with an AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs (11-5).
In Indianapolis' 23-7 win at Kansas City two weeks ago, Mathis was awarded one sack of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on a play that was originally ruled an interception. The linebacker hit Smith as he was preparing to throw, knocking the ball out of his hand. The football bounced off the quarterback's forearm and traveled several yards down field before being caught by Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
When the Elias Sports Bureau — the NFL's official statisticians — reviewed the play, it was determined Smith had fumbled, and another sack was added to Mathis' total.
He tacked on two more last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars — and narrowly missed a share of a third — to continue a nearly season-long hot streak. Despite all that activity, Mathis claims to be in good health entering the postseason.
"I'm feeling good, ready to go. It's playoff time," he said. "Any small nicks, bruises, anything you have, that goes away. Maybe it'll come back in March. You ain't got time to think about that. It's time to play football and play for New York."
Indianapolis has been playing football particularly well of late, especially on defense. In their past 12 quarters, the Colts have allowed just 20 points, helping to spearhead a three-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
The players attribute the success to better execution. Indianapolis' scheme relies on all 11 men doing their job on each play. If even one of them is out of alignment, or late to his gap, the results can be disastrous.
The key now is to build off the chemistry of the past three weeks. But that can be a delicate balance.
"You can be too loose to where you're overconfident, arrogant," Mathis said, explaining the nuances of postseason play. "But you can be too tight to where you're wound up, and you can't play football that way. You have to have fun. This is a kid's game so you have to approach it as such. Have fun. Just do what got you here."
By any measure, Mathis is a big part of what got the Colts here.
It's been a long climb for a player many knocked as undersized (6-foot-2, 246 pounds) and untested coming out of college. Mathis has heard just about every excuse for why he lasted through four complete rounds of the NFL draft.
He didn't play against strong enough competition. His frame would never hold up against the week-to-week pounding in the pros. He wasn't big enough to play the defensive line or fast enough to be a linebacker.
When the talk subsided and former Colts head coach Tony Dungy gave Mathis a chance to prove himself on the field, the story changed. For nine years, he excelled as a defensive end and played in four Pro Bowls.
Now, at age 32, the best season of his career has come in his second year as a linebacker.
"People tell me what I can't do, it makes me want to do it and show you that you don't have to be a 6-5, 315-pound end just to be this stud," he said. "You can play ball, football doesn't discriminate."