The playoffs start early for the Indianapolis Colts. Sunday, to be exact, in Kansas City.
The game looked to be a postseason preview after a 42-28 loss at Cincinnati last week. Then Denver lost on Thursday night — allowing the Chiefs to breathe new life in the AFC West race — and chaos erupted among two of the remaining top three playoff seeds three days later — opening the door for the Colts to improve their playoff seeding.
But almost any scenario that has Indianapolis (9-5) rising from the No. 4 seed requires a win this week at Kansas City (11-3). And that will be no simple task.
Fans at Arrowhead Stadium have waged a running feud with their counterparts in Seattle this season, trading the Guiness World Record for crowd noise back and forth. Add in expected wintry weather conditions — and one of the league's toughest defenses — and the stage is set for a supreme challenge.
"Our guys love that type of environment, kind of thrive in it," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano told the media Monday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
They're certain to get their fill Sunday.
Both teams still have plenty to play for.
Kansas City and Denver have matching records in the division standings, but the Broncos own the tiebreaker after two head-to-head victories this season. The AFC West crown matters because the runner-up will be relegated to the fifth seed and likely need to win three road playoff games to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII.
That road could begin in Indianapolis if the Colts lose Sunday. Indy currently sits fourth in the AFC because of a loss to the third-seeded Bengals (9-5). But the Colts would win a tiebreaker against No. 2 New England (10-4), and they remain mathematically alive for the No. 1 overall seed — and homefield advantage throughout the postseason.
To obtain the conference's top slot, Indianapolis needs wins against Kansas City and Jacksonville (4-10) in the regular-season finale Dec. 29 as well as two losses by the Chiefs and Broncos and one each for the Patriots and Bengals.
That seems unlikely.
A scenario in which the Colts win out and New England and Cincinnati lose once, however, is less complicated. That combination would elevate Indianapolis to the second seed and give the team a coveted first-round bye.
Likewise, two wins by the Colts and a loss by either the Patriots or Bengals would hand Indianapolis the No. 3 seed. If the Colts win just one of their remaining games, either New England or Cincinnati would need two losses for Indianapolis to move up.
The myriad possibilities quickly can become confusing, but Pagano has a simple solution.
"Our focus is on us and getting better this week and trying to go play as well as we can play and win a football game," he said. "It really won't matter if we don't take care of business."