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For fast-closing Colts, it’s win-and-in next Sunday at Tennessee; AFC South still in play

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 23: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after a touchdown in the game against the New York Giants in the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Frank-ly speaking, it’s nothing short of improbable where the Indianapolis Colts find themselves with one week remaining in a season that’s run the gamut.

With an eighth win in their last nine games after a 1-5 start that seems so very, very long ago.

With their first winning record (9-6 and counting) since 2014.

With a win-and-in rematch with the Tennessee Titans in Nashville next Sunday on NBC’s prime-time stage in what will be the NFL’s 256th and final game of the regular season. The Colts last reached the playoffs in 2014.

With more than a puncher’s shot at winning the AFC South.

It’s all the result of Andrew Luck once again performing his late-game magic and Malik Hooker sealing things with an interception. Luck’s 1-yard improv/touchdown pass to Chester Rogers with 55 seconds remaining was the exclamation mark on the 21st fourth quarter-overtime comeback of his career and the Colts’ 28-27 win over the New York Giants Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But listen to the players, and it’s all possible because of Frank Reich.

The Colts have followed their leader – listened to him, believed in him, followed him – and are right there with one week and one monster road test with the Titans left to deal with.

“What we’ve learned by being forced into the hole of 1-5, probably the one thing that came out of that (and) what’s forged in that is a real deep conviction about how we approach our business every day,’’ Reich said.

He admitted “it is crazy’’ still to be in the playoff hunt, adding “the only way that happens is believing in the process and believing in one another. I truly believe that with every fiber of my being.’’

With one game remaining and on the heels of Pittsburgh’s 31-28 loss at New Orleans, the Colts secure the final AFC wild-card berth by sweeping their season series with the Titans. They’re AFC South champions with a closing win at Tennessee and a Houston loss at home to Jacksonville. They can thank Philadelphia’s 32-30 win over the Texans for still having a shot at the division.

Remember, the Colts were listing badly following their 42-34 loss to the New York Jets. Remember, they were 1-5. The Colts are attempting to join the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs and 1970 Cincinnati Bengals as the only teams in NFL history to reach the postseason following 1-5 starts.

Yet confidence remained. What would Luck’s response have been if someone had asked about the Colts’ actually being one step from the playoffs following the Jets’ debacle?

“Sure, yeah, great, share the crystal ball,’’ he said with a laugh.

The confidence, though, was there.

“I think because of how Frank operates our building,’’ Luck said.

Reich has been a stick-to-the-process, improve-each-week, focus-on-the-next opponent head coach throughout the season, and maybe more so after the poor start.

“I think we understand in a sense anything is possible if you don’t look ahead,’’ Luck said. “You’re just focusing on improving.’’

Perhaps it was appropriate it took another sermon from the ordained minister to once again deliver a message that needed delivering.

At halftime, the Colts trailed 17-7. The offense was listless and mistake prone. The defense had given up 210 yards, two touchdowns and one field goal on the Giants’ four first-half possessions.

Reich had to get some things off his chest. And did.

“It was passionate by me,’’ he said. “It was passionate by some players.

“It wasn’t screaming and yelling at each other. It was, ‘This has got to be better. That was embarrassing. It was pathetic what we did out there in the first half.’’’

“Yeah,’’ Luck agreed, “passionate’s a good way to describe it.’’

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo emphasized Reich “won’t emote that intensely unless he really feels it. That’s one of the reasons we all respect Frank so much. He’s not going to come in here and give us rah-rah just because he feels like doing it.

“When he comes in here and gets after us, it’s because we’re not playing well.’’

Again, Giants 17, Colts 7 at halftime.

“He told us, ‘That’s not how we play football,’’’ Castonzo said. “Everybody heard it.’’

There wasn’t any turning over of tables. Voices were raised, but hardly ricocheting off the walls.

“It was stern,’’ Castonzo said. “I don’t think he knows how to yell. He’s stern.

“It was 100 percent warranted. We did not play good football in the first half.’’

Reich’s halftime soliloquy pushed the limits of the halftime lull. The Colts trotted out of the tunnel as the whistles were blowing to start the third quarter.

“Yeah,’’ Castonzo said, “we were almost late coming out at the half. It was all Frank.’’

After that, it was all Luck and just enough of the defense.

Over the final 30 minutes and excluding the game-ending victory formation, Luck and the offense maximized four their possessions: 31 plays, 233 yards, Marlon Mack’s 3-yard touchdown and Luck TD passes to Dontrelle Inman and Rogers.

Luck was at his absolute best with everything on the line in the second half: 16-of-23, 214 yards, 2 TDs, a 127.8 passer rating.

“I can’t say enough about how clutch Andrew was,’’ Reich said. “He was just clutch that whole last drive, making throws, checks.

“The last play was a check. I called a run.’’

On first-and-goal at the 1 following an interference penalty in the end zone on B.W. Webb, Luck surveyed the Giants’ defense and consulted wideouts Chester Rogers and T.Y. Hilton.

“When he called the run I looked at Chester and T.Y. and said, ‘What do you think about running a little pass pattern on top of it?’’’ Luck said. “And they said, ‘Let’s do it.’

“So we did and great execution by those two guys.’’

The last drive was made possible by the defense and punter Rigoberto Sanchez.

The defense finally got its act together. First, it stiffened and forced the Giants to settle for Aldrick Rosas’ 27-yard field goal with 9:20 remaining. Denico Autry pulled down Saquon Barkley for a 2-yard loss on second-and-2 at the Indy 7, then Tyquan Lewis forced a Manning incompletion on third-and-4.

“Huge,’’ Reich said of Autry’s tackle for loss.

Instead of the Giants finishing the drive with a TD and settling into a 31-21 lead, the lead was a reachable 27-21.

When the offense’s answering drive stalled at the Giants 39-yard line, Sanchez’s punt was downed at the New York 4.

“I mean huge punt, right?’’ Reich said. “It totally hamstrings you as a play caller.’’

The Colts defense kept the Giants in the shadow of their own goal and forced another punt, giving the offense possession at the Indy 47.

Then it was on the Luck-led offense to deliver. On the game-winning drive, four different players contributed positive plays: Luck, Hilton, Inman and Rogers.

“He’s just trusting and believing guys are going to be in the right spots,’’ Hilton said. “Everybody made a play all throughout the second half.

“In crunch time, every receiver, every tight end, every O-lineman made a crucial block or play to help us win.’’

The difference between now and the 1-5 start, Hilton added, is “we’re making that one or two plays that we needed to make back then. We’re making them now.’’

And playing into January is a possibility.

“It’s a great team. A brotherhood,’’ Hilton said. “We all stay by one another. We’re just having fun.

“As long as we continue to have fun and play Colts football the way we’re doing, we’ll be a tough team to beat.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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