By Dan Pompei
INDIANAPOLIS -- If the NFL playoffs are the Hunger Games with cheerleaders, it's fitting that the tournament be ruled by survivors as much as dominators. Competitors who best are defined by resilience. Men who refuse to be held under.
A while back, long before Reggie Wayne became a highly paid coaching assistant, Colts coach Chuck Pagano passed out T-shirts to his players. On the back was one word: GRIT. "I don't know if he is a prophet or what," backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "But that one word is exactly what it has taken for us to win games. It's mental toughness. It's one game at a time. It's don't judge the score. It's what we've been about."
The Colts were nearly eliminated in the Wild-Card round on Saturday. After Andrew Luck threw an interception on the first play of the third quarter, the Chiefs went up 38-10. Luck came to the sideline steaming. "That was so stupid!" he yelled. "Why did I do that?" Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen took him aside. "That's behind you," he told him. "We're going to be in two-minutes [drills for] the rest of the game. Let's see what happens."
You could hear the sound of TV's turning off all across the country, but the Colts were just turning it on. It seems there is no deficit too daunting for Luck. Coming into the game, Luck's résumé included seven fourth-quarter comebacks, six victories when trailing by double digits and 10 game-winning drives.
He added to each in a 45-44 win that people in Indianapolis will be talking about 40 years from now. After the Chiefs went up 38-10, the Colts scored 35 of the next 41 points, including one touchdown when Luck recovered a Donald Brown fumble and plunged into the end zone, and another on Luck's 64-yard pass to T.Y. Hilton.
Luck's secret? Tight end Coby Fleener, who has been catching Luck's passes since their days at Stanford, thinks he knows. "He realizes there is no one play that is going to get you back in the game," Fleener said. "It's a series of positive plays, stacking one on top of the other to mount a comeback."
These Colts may well meet their demise one week from now in Denver or New England. But they still will be tattooed with the kind of resiliency that champions are known for. "This team has never panicked since I've been a part of this club," Luck said. "Up big, down big, close game, first quarter, fourth quarter. These guys just play football. We're sort of reaffirming that on the sidelines. We don't need anything special. There is no 28-point score."
After overcoming the loss of their head coach for most of the 2012 season, the Colts this year lost their star wide receiver. Wayne, given his 13 years of experience and consistent playmaking ability, was the bridge between Peyton Manning's Colts and Luck's Colts, and the reason this offense was not supposed to skip a beat.
After playing in every game for the last 11 seasons, Wayne, 35, made it through only seven this year because of a torn ACL. That could have left Luck feeling like an orphan. Instead, he found a way to thrive. He dialed down his bold throws and dialed up his safe choices. His completion percentage without Wayne has been 60.4, compared to 55.8 with Wayne over 23 games. And his passer rating has been 86.0 since Wayne has been out. It was 80.4 when Wayne was on the field going back to last year.
"Maybe Andrew has changed a little," Fleener said. "With Reggie on the field, you can almost stare at him and throw it every time. He's so good at getting open and catching the ball. It's probably made Andrew better…. It's allowed Andrew more freedom."
Wayne, the six-time Pro Bowler, watched the game from the sideline on Saturday wearing a Colts-issued blue sweatshirt. He couldn't make plays but he clearly had a presence. His coaches told Wayne half of his role had been to play. The other half was to lead, and that hasn't changed. "He hasn't let that room slow down," Christensen said. "He gets some credit for this. He's always here. Some guys get hurt, they go on IR, they head home. He's there every practice, every meeting, during pregame. He's on those receivers."
Hilton, who had a career game with 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns, has been the primary beneficiary. "He tells us everything that basically the defense is doing, how they are playing you," said Hilton, who has stepped into the void to become the Colts' leading wide receiver. "Are they inside leverage or outside leverage, head up? How are the safeties rolling? When you come to the sideline, he's going to tell you everything that they're doing so when you go back out the next time, you know what they're doing and you are pretty much adjusted."
In the two games after Wayne went out, Hilton had a pair of 100-yard receiving performances. But then he went six straight games without a 100-yard game. Hilton had gone from being a third receiver to a first, and it was a difficult adjustment. He had to play more snaps and take more hits. There was no more rest on the sideline between plays. He went from playing in the slot to playing all over the formation. And he went from being covered by a third cornerback to being covered by a No. 1 cornerback. Eventually though, Hilton adjusted. "He has come on," Christensen said. "Reggie has helped him learn the role of being a No. 1."
The Colts' resiliency has been contagious. Wayne's injury hardly has been the only one. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has kept the offense rolling despite one flat tire after another. The Colts have started five wide receivers, five running backs and nine offensive linemen. They have used seven different starting alignments on the offensive line. Whether it's Jeff Linkenbach, Mike McGlynn, Xavier Nixon, Joe Reitz or Hugh Thornton at guard, the offensive soup has tasted the same. "All the guys getting the off-season reps were not available on game day, but we survived it," Hamilton told reporters last week. "We were able to recalibrate. Coaches did a great job of getting the next guy up ready to play and understand what we needed to do in the offense."
Survival, it seems, is this team's specialty.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.