The Herald Bulletin

December 18, 2012

Colts in hurry to clinch

Indianapolis on cusp of cementing playoff berth

By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — It’s a two-game season.

That’s the mantra adopted by the Indianapolis Colts after their AFC South championship dreams folded Sunday with a 29-17 loss at the Houston Texans.

It’s a brief amount of time, but there are plenty of interesting possibilities.

There are two simple scenarios in which the Colts (9-5) can clinch a playoff berth this weekend. The first, and most straightforward, is a victory at the Kansas City Chiefs (2-12) on Sunday. But Indianapolis can still get in through a side door with a Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) win against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7).

“We need to get in the playoffs,” Colts interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians told the media Monday. “That’s all we’re thinking about is getting there. We’re not there, yet.”

No, but they’re awfully close.

The Tennessee Titans’ ugly 14-10 victory against the New York Jets eliminated one of the major potential obstacles in Indianapolis’ path. The Jets (6-8) could have won a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Colts because of their 35-9 victory in Week 6.

Now, the main thing keeping Indianapolis from claiming its seat at the postseason table is the uncertainty in the AFC North. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Ravens (9-5) still can win the division.

The Bengals and Steelers play each other Sunday, and Cincinnati is scheduled to travel to Baltimore in the regular-season finale. That game could be for the division championship if the Bengals beat Pittsburgh.

It’s possible, though unlikely, all three teams could tie the Colts with 9-7 records when the dust settles Dec. 30. In that scenario, Pittsburgh would win the AFC North and Baltimore would claim one of the two wild-card playoff seeds.

The deadlock between Indianapolis and Cincinnati for the final spot would come down to the league’s fourth tie-breaking criteria: Strength of victory. The Colts currently lead in that category. Their nine victories have come against teams with a combined winning percentage of .397. The Bengals’ eight wins have come against teams with a winning percentage of .339.

Those numbers could change over the final two weeks, but there are complicated scenarios in which Indianapolis can clinch that edge on Sunday.

All of that only comes into play, of course, if the Colts fail to defeat the Chiefs this week or the Texans (12-2) at home in the regular-season finale.

“We just got to take care of our own,” Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea said. “We win, we’re in. And that’s our focus. Simple as that.”

There’s more than a playoff berth at stake this week, as well.

With a win and a Ravens’ loss to the New York Giants, the Colts can clinch the No. 5 seed in the AFC.

Why does that matter?

It’s currently the difference between opening the postseason at the eventual AFC North champion or making a return trip to Foxborough, Mass., to play the New England Patriots (10-4).

There’s also momentum to be taken into consideration. The last two Super Bowl champions — the Giants and Green Bay Packers — entered the postseason with 9-7 and 10-6 records, respectively. They both caught fire late in the season and rode hot quarterbacks to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

That’s an incredibly lofty goal for this year’s Colts and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, but it all starts with beating Kansas City on Sunday.

“We don’t want to limp into the playoffs,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “You want to walk into the playoffs. In order to do that, we have to end on a good note, strong on the offensive side of the ball, strong on special teams and strong defensively. We have to get off to a fast start and finish faster. That’s the whole mindset.”