The Indianapolis Colts enter the next phase in their monster construction this week. And this can be the toughest project to master.
Welcome to life as a favorite.
Wins against San Francisco, Seattle and Denver raised the Colts' national profile. With nine games left in the regular season, they have a two-game lead in the AFC South. And each of Indianapolis' division rivals just went 0-for-October.
That has led to increased talk about playoff seeding and the race for a first-round bye. For the first time under this new regime, the Colts are being spoken of nationally as a Super Bowl contender.
All of which can be hazardous to a young team that still is trying to find its footing among the nouveau NFL elite. Add in the challenge of conquering this new frontier without star wide receiver Reggie Wayne in the lineup, and you start to get a sense of the intrigue the remainder of the season holds.
"You start reading the press clippings and worrying about power rankings and all this other stuff, you're done," head coach Chuck Pagano told the media Monday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "You're done. We're going to stick with the process."
That process leads to another prime time game Sunday night in Houston. The Texans are a desperate team running out of options. Despite boasting the NFL's top-ranked defense, Houston (2-5) has lost five consecutive games and will replace a healthy Matt Schaub at quarterback with second-year pro Case Keenum.
The former University of Houston star made his first NFL start two weeks ago in a 17-16 loss at Kansas City. Keenum earned another chance by completing 15 of 25 passes for 271 yards and one touchdown without an interception against the undefeated Chiefs.
Like the Colts, the Texans are coming off a bye week. A home loss Sunday essentially would eliminate Houston from the division title race, and that should make the Texans even more dangerous.
"They are a dangerous team, point blank, period," outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. "Their scheme, the things they do, they do well. Make no mistake about it, we're not looking at their record because they are the two-time AFC South champions, and we respect them as such."
The most difficult portion of Indianapolis' season ended with a thrilling victory two weeks ago against Denver. But the most interesting — and important — stretch of the schedule is just getting started.
The good news is, the Colts are smart enough to know they haven't accomplished anything yet.
"I think we all, in this locker room, realize no one cares what your record was Week 8, Week 7, whatever week it is in the season," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "It's all about what the record is at the end of the year, and if we can focus on each game like it's the biggest — because it is, the next game's always the biggest — then we've got a chance."