INDIANAPOLIS -- When the final seconds were ticking away, as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck glanced behind him to find running back Donald Brown grinning as the offense prepared to kneel in victory formation, it was apparent how much the Colts had grown up. This wasn't merely about a miraculous comeback in one of the wildest playoff games in recent memory. It was about a team taking the next step in a journey that started last season, with an ailing coach and a legend in the franchise's rearview mirror. When the Colts look back on whatever happens during the Luck era, they will remember this night as square one of their true maturation.
Even now, it's still difficult to explain exactly how Indianapolis overcame a 28-point deficit to earn a 45-44 AFC wild-card win Saturday over the Kansas City Chiefs. There were key defensive stops here, big pass plays there and a fortunate bounce on a Brown fumble that Luck nabbed and turned into a 5-yard touchdown. More than anything, the young Colts played like it didn't matter if they'd spotted their opponent a four-touchdown lead early in the second half. The Colts couldn't be fazed. They believed in their chances as long as time remained on the clock.
This isn't something that happens easily, by the way. It takes years for most teams to develop such a combination of resilience and resourcefulness, and the Colts already have it mastered in the two since their former star quarterback, Peyton Manning, left town.
"This team has never panicked since I've been a part of this club," Luck said after the game. "Guys just play football. We knew there was no 28-point score. Guys just stepped up."
As simple as Luck made it sound, that really is how the Colts came back. They kept plugging away, kept pushing the ball downfield, kept pounding the Chiefs whenever they had a chance to steal a little more momentum in their favor. It's an attitude that surely evolved last season, when the Colts were written off the minute Manning moved on and Luck stepped into a colossal rebuilding project. There was seemingly no way a team that picked first in the draft in 2012 -- a franchise that basically had cleaned house, with head coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Bill Polian also tossed out the door -- could grow up so fast.
Then Luck started proving why he was so celebrated when he became the first overall draft selection. The team also showed its heart in the way it rallied around head coach Chuck Pagano, who was sidelined for three months last season as he battled leukemia. "Chuckstrong" became the movement that united a team and ignited a city. It also proved to have a lasting effect on a Colts squad that really understands that legitimate pressure is about life and death.
The only way to make sense of what happened Saturday is to realize that Indianapolis plays best when people expect the worst. Many people believed this team would take a step back this year after finishing 11-5 in 2012 and losing the emotional motivation that Pagano's illness inspired. Instead, the Colts wound up 11-5 again. They also claimed the AFC South title. They also beat Denver, San Francisco and Seattle, three teams that most people would argue have the best chance of winning this year's Super Bowl.