Surprising season has Indianapolis Colts in the playoff conversation as the bye week arrives

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts opened this season seemingly content to rebuild behind a first-time head coach and a rookie quarterback. Their top rusher was hurt and mired in an ugly contract dispute and their defensive leader was taking limited snaps.

Inside the team complex, though, nobody wrote off this season — certainly not after missing the playoffs three straight times.

And now, entering the bye week, the Colts find themselves sitting at 5-5 and one of the bigger surprises in the AFC playoff mix.

“It’s just a confidence boost knowing we have a realistic push to make a playoff run,” two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said after Sunday's win in Germany. “We have a lot of guys who are banged up, and we have this bye week to really recover and get our bodies right to make this push.”

Few foresaw this conversation last summer, even before the dramatic midseason twists and turns.

Backup quarterback Gardner Minshew finished three of the four games Anthony Richardson started and then took over as the starter when the fourth overall pick in April's draft went down with a season-ending right shoulder injury in Week 5.

While the rollercoaster performances have not quite rekindled the Minshew Mania magic that permeated his rookie season in Jacksonville, he is 3-3 as the starter and has won two straight despite producing only two touchdown drives.

“I think it’s just the belief and the resilience. No matter what the circumstances are — if the offense ain’t scoring points like we haven’t been the last two weeks, the defense has stepped up,” coach Shane Steichen said. “We’re finding ways to win games and that’s the stat that matters, winning football games.”

Minshew wasn't the only one who had to adapt quickly.

Indy thought pairing 2021 NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor with the versatile rookie QB could produce a devastating ground game.

Instead, Taylor missed the first four games while recovering from offseason ankle surgery and complaining about the NFL's devaluing of running backs. When Taylor did return after agreeing to a three-year $42 million contract extension, Zack Moss was the NFL's No. 2 rusher, allowing Richardson and Taylor to take only one snap together.

“I think the No. 1 thing is to just stay engaged on what your goal is,” Taylor said when asked about his advice for Richardson. “It can seem mundane. It can seem like you are in a cycle that won’t end: When will my body take the next step? Just stay focused on the goal.”

Taylor's words also apply to Indy's defense.

The Colts rank in the top six in sacks, strip sacks and fumble recoveries despite a forgettable October in which they allowed 114 points during a three-game losing streak and seeing three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard play the lowest snap percentage of his career following two back surgeries.

Over the last two weeks, though, Indy turned things around against New England and Carolina, which have the worst records in their respective conferences. The Colts allowed just one TD and 19 points.

“I feel like the games we’ve lost have just been when the defense really took it on the chin,” defensive end Kwity Paye said Tuesday. “We didn’t do our part and they scored more points than we wanted and that resulted in us losing games. These past two games kind of showed what we can do.”

And more opportunities lie ahead.

While the Colts lack the depth or explosiveness of division-leaders such as Kansas City or Miami, they've already beaten AFC North-leading Baltimore and the surprising Houston Texans on the road and remain ahead of popular preseason playoff picks such as Buffalo and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Indy also has a favorable schedule.

Only two of their final seven opponents — Pittsburgh (6-3) and Cincinnati (5-4) — have winning records and only Houston is ranked among the top 20 in points per game.

So, somehow with Minshew as the starting quarterback, Taylor still not back to his old self and Moss' role starting to fade, Steichen has constructed an offense that's scoring more than a touchdown higher per game, going from 17.0 points to 24.2 — enough to put Indy in the postseason hunt.

It's right where the Colts hoped to be in mid-November.

“Years past, we have started off the year pretty slow — 1-5 seasons and things like that,” tight end Mo Alie-Cox said. “Just having momentum going into a bye, getting back to .500, especially coming off a three-game losing streak being able to get two in a row we've put ourselves in a good position.”