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These ponies look hot to trot

– Indianapolis 30, Jacksonville 10. But enough about Sunday.

The Colts are revived, refreshed and rolling into January. A team too close to finding its A game not to be dangerous. The 11-5 record is in the books; a rather astonishing finish when you consider both the injuries and thumpings inflicted. But now comes the hard part.

“Playoff time – it’s time to go,” Robert Mathis said. “You can’t hold anything back.”

Everything has changed in three weeks, since the pounding in the cold at Cincinnati. Crisis control has been replaced by momentum. Questions have been given answers. Grim numbers subbed out for good numbers.

“Some mojo,” Chuck Pagano called it. “Guys caught fire.”

The Colts won their last three games by a combined score of 78-20. They committed one turnover their past 19 quarters. The turnover differential – as valuable a commodity as there is in the playoffs – was plus-10 the past five games.

That’s some fire, as the Colts watch reruns of the Kansas City films, preparing for a rematch with the Chiefs.

“It’s burning, man,” Antoine Bethea said. “You’ve got to keep it burning.”

The liberal use of an up-tempo, no-huddle attack has been like a multivitamin to the offense, and the quarterback who drives it. The Colts sometimes play as if they’re double parked, but they are running better, catching better, moving the ball better.

“I think there’s a bit of rhythm that we’ve found,” Andrew Luck said. “I do feel like I’ve improved. I feel like this offense, this team has improved. I think that’s sports in general. You want to take every game as a learning lesson.”

But what most has lit this timely inferno, and what will likely dictate how hard the Colts are to get rid of in January, is defense. Twenty points allowed in three games. That came after a stretch when they leaked like the Titanic, giving up 42 points to Cincinnati, 40 to Arizona, 38 to St. Louis. Those were the midseason dark ages, when the only three things for sure were death, taxes and Indianapolis behind at halftime.

It begs the question, what changed?

“It’s the same schemes that we’ve run all year,” Bethea said. “We’re just executing, we’re getting turnovers, we’re getting sacks, we’re getting off (the field) on third down – all the things we’ve been saying that we wanted to do all year.”

Mathis mentioned how this late surge was “much needed. We’re a young team, so we had to generate that steam.

“We’ve got a lot of guys back from injuries. Also, it’s a mindset. We have the pieces to do it, we’ve just got to do it.”

It is tempting to trot out 2006 as an inspiring parable. A rapidly stiffening defense at the end of that season was a harbinger for the Super Bowl championship to come. Mathis, an ’06 holdover, said he can see some similarities.

Funny thing, though. Those Colts gave up 65 points the last three games of that regular season. The dominance did not come until the playoffs. Maybe these Colts started early.

It is a team whose drive and purpose have never been questioned, especially now. A team that fully appreciates what it has done, only two years removed from plunging to the bottom of the NFL, when – as Pagano said – “They had left us for dead.”

So an 11-5 record means something. “I’ll never take wins for granted,” Mathis said. “Not after 2-14.”

But now is when hopes are fulfilled, or crushed.

“We’re building confidence, and guys have a lot of trust in each other, knowing that guys are going to make plays,” said Adam Vinatieri, who has seen playoff teams like dentists have seen molars. “That’s kind of what you want to do when you are going into the playoffs. You want to be climbing.”

Oh, it’s a tough-minded bunch, all right. But as tough as past Colts teams who defined their legacies in the playoffs?

“It’s up there,” Mathis said, “When February rolls around, I’ll be able to tell you much clearer.”

Clarity. That’s what January is for.

Mike Lopresti is a freelance writer. His columns appear periodically in The Journal Gazette.

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