Colts in home stretch with Ws, draft positioning, jobs on the line

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 29: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on October 29, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – They’ve shown signs of life after being left for dead.

Remember four weeks ago? Remember the 27-0 beating administered by the Jacksonville Jaguars? The 10 sacks of Jacoby Brissett? The defense getting demolished by Blake Bortles – Blake Bortles – until the Jaguars lost interest?

That was Ground Zero, a place that apparently motivated the Indianapolis Colts to vacate as quickly as possible.

Since that comprehensively awful performance, they’ve regrouped and regained their competitive edge. They’ve given every indication they won’t go quietly into an offseason that will arrive as soon as the gun sounds on the Dec. 31 finale against the Houston Texans.

The Colts are only 1-2 in their last three games, but all were imminently winnable and each featured a resurgence by what had been a historically-bad defense. While holding on and winning at Houston 20-14, they remained in character and lost fourth-quarter leads while losing at Cincinnati 24-23 and home against the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-17.

So now what?

Finish, that’s what.

“We’re never discouraged,’’ Chuck Pagano said. “We’re disappointed, but you never get discouraged. You keep coming back and you keep working.

“We signed up for 16 of these and we’re going to play every last one of them.’’

The next one is Sunday, a rematch with the Tennessee Titans.

What’s at stake, Sunday and beyond for a 3-7 bunch?

Frank Gore hasn’t given up on what now is the Highly Improbably Dream.

“We need to get ready for a division game,’’ he said, “and still got a chance, especially looking at the AFC.

“There’s the wild card . . . two games out. We just got to continue believing in ourselves.’’

We applaud Gore’s single-mindedness, his unabashed optimism.

As he points out, despite being tied with Denver for the second-worst record in the AFC, the Colts find themselves two games out of the wild-card chase with six to play. That sixth and final spot currently belongs to the Baltimore Ravens (5-5). Lurking are Buffalo (5-5), the Los Angeles Chargers (5-6) and five 4-6 teams.

But let’s be honest. The Colts are on a collision course with missing the playoffs in three straight seasons for the first time since a seven-year drought (1988-94), and an offseason of change.

According to makenflplayoffs.com, the Colts have a 4.5 percent chance of earning a postseason spot.

There’s a good chance Pagano’s tenure ends after six seasons – remember, Jim Irsay said first-time general manager Chris Ballard would evaluate Pagano and his staff – and more than a few veterans won’t be around next season. The short list of front-liners includes Vontae Davis, Donte Moncrief and Gore. It might include Jack Mewhort and Darius Butler.

If the Colts can finish with a strong closing kick, look for their fan base to cringe with each victory. They currently sit 4th in the 2018 NFL Draft order, but it’s a fluid situation. They’re tied with Denver and Chicago at 3-7, and 10 teams have six losses.

Butler is in his sixth season with the Colts and ninth in the league. The one overriding reality that’s been engrained: the only thing that matters is the next game; the future will take care of itself.

“We’re just trying to win games and win them back-to-back,’’ he said. “It starts with one. We’ve been playing well, we’ve been gelling and we just need to keep that going.’’

That in a mind, a quick glimpse of the Colts’ closing dance card. We would argue three of the games – the Titans, Denver, Houston – are winnable:

Sunday: Tennessee

  • Record: 6-4.
  • Conference seed: 5th.
  • Outlook: The Titans and Marcus Mariota are coming off a miserable performance at Pittsburgh. The Steelers rolled 40-17 as Mariota suffered a career-high four interceptions. There’s reason for optimism in Nashville because Mariota, rendered a pocket passer when the Titans handled the Colts last month, apparently has regained his health and mobility. And as we mentioned, they’re in position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Dec. 3, at Jacksonville

  • Record: 7-3.
  • Conference seed: 3rd.
  • Outlook: The Jaguars either are the real deal – finally – or will reinforce their reputation as one of the biggest teases in NFL history. They’re off to their best start since 2007, which happens to be the last time the Jaguars posted a winning record (11-5) and reached the postseason. We’re still not climbing on the Blake Bortles train – do so at your own risk – but Jacksonville’s defense is legit. It ranks 1st in fewest yards and fewest points allowed, 1st with 40 sacks and tied for 1st with 23 takeaways.

Dec. 10, at Buffalo

  • Record: 5-5.
  • Conference seed: 7th.
  • Outlook: We applaud the Bills for remaining in the hunt for their first playoff berth since 1999 despite Sean McDermott’s mis-handling of his quarterback situation. By the time to Colts come to town, Jim Kelly might be back under center.

Dec. 14, Denver

  • Record: 3-7.
  • Conference seed: 15th.
  • Outlook: So, defense wins championships? The Broncos’ D ranks 3rd overall, 4th against the run and 5th against the pass. Oh, and 27th in points allowed. But Denver’s offense lacks a proven QB and has been a train wreck. Sunday, Paxton Lynch becomes the Broncos’ third starting QB this season, following Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian. Anyone have Peyton Manning on speed dial?

Dec. 23, at Baltimore

  • Record: 5-5.
  • Conference seed: 6th.
  • Outlook: The defense is elite – 6th in total yards allowed, 2nd against the pass, 3rd in scoring. It has pitched a league-high three shutouts. But the offense ranks 31st in yards, 32nd in passing and tied for 17th in scoring. Joe Flacco is enduring a tough season. His 74.4 passer rating ranks 32nd, his 5.4 yards per attempt ranks 35th and he has nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Dec. 3, Houston

  • Record: 4-6.
  • Conference seed: 13th.
  • Outlook: After replacing Deshaun Watson and stumbling badly in losses to the Colts and Rams, Tom Savage actually looked the part of NFL QB in a 31-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals – 22-of-32, 230 yards, two TDs, one interception. But can he keep it up? DeAndre Hopkins certainly hopes so.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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