The Indianapolis Colts keep doing unthinkable things.
They're winning close games with a rookie quarterback and one of the league's youngest teams. They're winning with an interim head coach, and now, they're on the verge of making it back to the playoffs without Peyton Manning.
And it's all thanks to a new cast of comeback kids.
"You know you have a chance until the last tick goes off the clock with those guys --as long as you can keep it within a manageable striking distance," coach Bruce Arians said Monday describing his experiences with three quarterbacks he's coached: Andrew Luck, Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
Manning and Roethlisberger have the Super Bowl rings to prove it.
Luck doesn't have his ring yet, but his resume is getting stronger each week.
He's led the Colts to last-minute winning drives against Green Bay and Minnesota, an overtime win at Tennessee and, on Sunday, delivered another masterpiece with two TD passes in the final 2:39 to rally Indy from a 33-21 deficit to a stunning 35-33 win at Detroit as time expired. It was Indy's first winning score with no time left since 1990, yet another chapter in Luck's uncanny rookie season.
The two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up has already broken Cam Newton's single-game record for yards passing by a rookie; broken Manning's record for most 300-yard games as a rookie (six); and has won more games (eight) than any quarterback taken No. 1 overall since the 1970 merger. He's still on pace to break the league's single-season rookie marks for attempts, completions and yardage, and when Luck has needed big passes in clutch situations, he's been almost unstoppable.
In one key measure, games decided by eight or fewer points, Luck is a gaudy 7-1. The only loss came on an improbable an 80-yard TD pass with less than a minute to go after Luck had given Indy the lead with another last-minute score. Compare those numbers to Manning, who won eight one-possession games at four different times during his 14 seasons with Indy, and had a career-high nine only once, in 1999.
Luck's latest chapter came in Manning-like fashion Sunday when the 6-foot-4, 234-pound quarterback threw a perfect 42-yard strike to LaVon Brazill despite having a defender wrapped around his legs. That score got the Colts within 33-28.
After a desperately needed defensive stop, Luck went back to work with 1:07 on the clock and no timeouts.
He started the drive with a 9-yard run, then dropped a perfect lob into Reggie Wayne's hands for 26 yards with 52 seconds left. After a spike, Luck sprinted around Ndamukong Suh and stepped out of bounds for a 16-yard gain. He followed that with a 10-yard completion to Dwayne Allen that gave Indy four chances at the end zone from the 14 with 24 seconds left. Luck's first three passes all fell incomplete, but on the final play, a scrambling Luck spotted the open Donnie Avery short of the goal line, flicked the ball to him and nearly outran Avery into the end zone as time expired.
"They don't know no better, don't know any better, man," Wayne said after the game. "They just know to just keep playing, at the end of the game, just see the way we fall out. That's a credit just to the coaches. Just keeping the guys into it, keeping them to play toward the end and guys just go out there and keep fighting and fighting till it's all over."
It also explains why the Colts are closing in on an improbable playoff trip.
If Indy beats Tennessee (4-8) at home Sunday, all the Colts would need to clinch a postseason spot is one more win and a conference loss by either Cincinnati (6-5) or Pittsburgh (6-5). Since the franchise moved to Indy in 1984, the Colts have made the playoffs just three times without Manning.
But with only two teams outside of the AFC's four division leaders having fewer than seven losses, and because Indy hasn't played either the Bengals or Steelers, the tiebreaker would be based on AFC record. With two wins in their last four games, the Colts would be 10-6 overall and 7-5 against the AFC. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, who play Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh, already have five losses each against AFC foes.
Indy closes the season by hosting Tennessee, visiting Houston and Kansas City before facing the Texans in a Dec. 30 rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium -- a game the Colts have pegged as the possible return for head coach Chuck Pagano.
Arians, who took over for Pagano after he was diagnosed with leukemia Sept. 26, has gone 7-2. Only three coaches in league history have won more games after a midseason coaching change: San Diego's Don Coryell (8-4 in 1978), Wally Lemm (9-0 in 1961) with the Houston Oilers in the AFL, and Hamp Pool (9-2 in 1952) with the Los Angeles Rams.
But Arians isn't looking at records, closing flurries or the playoffs. He wants the Colts to focus on what they did do best -- succeeding when nobody else expects it.
"There's some really good football teams behind us and we just have to take care of our own business, and we will worry about all that (later) because a lot of the teams will play each other in these last few weeks," Arians said when asked about looking at possible playoff scenarios. "There's plenty of time to worry about it."
Notes: Arians said Pagano was expected to complete his third and final round of chemotherapy Tuesday and he could be back at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, though Arians said it would be "tough" because this is when Pagano's white blood-cell count is expected to drop. ... Indy's players got a second straight Monday off, their reward for winning on Sunday. ... Arians did not update the injury status of starting offensive linemen Winston Justice or Joe Reitz, who both left Sunday's game with possible concussions. ... Arians did, however, give his own injury update after taking a hard fall when Lions safety Don Carey ran into him following an interception. "Just a little stiff, a little stiff," Arians said. "But I'm OK. I can take their best shot."
The Indianapolis Colts keep doing unthinkable things.