Jan. 1—INDIANAPOLIS — A season filled with chaos from the moment it was announced head coach Frank Reich had tested positive for COVID-19 on the day players reported to training camp comes to down to one simple truth Sunday for the Indianapolis Colts.
Beat the Las Vegas Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium and head to the postseason for the third time in the past four years.
"We wanted to control our own destiny in a sense, and we got that opportunity come this Sunday," Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "We put ourselves in this position early on, starting off 0-3, then going to 1-4, then fighting our way back to this moment. We control our own destiny, like I said. We got a perfect opportunity to punch our ticket."
It's been a long and harrowing journey.
The 0-3 start included dual ankle injuries that took quarterback Carson Wentz out for the final drive of a Week 2 loss against the Los Angeles Rams and severely limited him in a Week 3 loss at the Tennessee Titans.
There were blown leads against the Baltimore Ravens and at home against the Titans and reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers that raised questions about whether Indianapolis could finish in the biggest games.
Three-time All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson has missed four games due to a combination of injuries and COVID protocols. Three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly has missed the last three games because of COVID and an unthinkable family tragedy. And the Colts (9-6) played most of last week's 22-16 win against the Arizona Cardinals without four starting offensive linemen and four key defensive players.
Even this week, Indianapolis has dealt with more starters being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list — including Wentz — and there are no guarantees about the status of several players for the crucial game against the Raiders (8-7).
But that simple truth remains: Win, and they're in.
"For me, just motivated just to get back out there," said two-time All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, one of the defensive players out at Arizona. "For two, being able to control your own destiny is something that I'm very thankful about. This team is very thankful not having to worry about everybody else. Everything's all on us, and that's the mindset. We understand that, and we know what's at stake.
"We know we have to come out and play our best ball against these guys. Each year, it's a battle against them because they're a great team. They have a lot of great weapons, especially offensively. So we have to make sure we understand that we have to come in and we've got to play four great quarters of football if we want to make a playoff push. That's the mindset, and I think that's the mentality everybody's thinking. So we're just ready to rock and roll and looking forward to the opportunity."
The on-field challenge begins with Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr.
The Raiders have the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense entering Week 17, and Carr has completed 68.7% of his passes for 4,363 yards and 20 touchdowns.
He's been sacked 35 times, which points to the need for the defensive line to again be a factor Sunday, and he's offered opposing defenses ample opportunities for turnovers.
Through 15 games, Carr has thrown 12 interceptions and fumbled 12 times. Las Vegas has lost 10 fumbles and committed 22 turnovers as a team.
"Derek Carr is my boy," Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. "He's a great quarterback. He makes great throws. He's accurate in his throws. He trusts and believes in his receivers as you can see when you watch film. He's going to go up and have his receiver go get it because he believes that they're going to go get it.
"Actually, how he talks in the media about his guys, you can tell he has confidence in his guys. So with a guy like that, going against Carr, we just have to be confident within ourselves when the ball is in the air. We have to take it or knock it down."
For the second straight week, Indianapolis' lineup could be shifting right up until game day.
It's likely backups and lesser-know players again will have to make some big plays to pull out a victory.
And the Raiders will be fighting for their postseason lives, guaranteeing the Colts get their best shot.
But, during a season where so many things have exceeded the team's grasp, the win-and-in aspect crystallizes Indianapolis' focus this week.
"It's been a battle all season," veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. "Some of the games we weren't finishing we started off hot, and then we kind of got cold, and we ended up losing those games. Now we're just hot throughout the whole game, and we're starting to finish those games. The end goal is winning.
"So we're finding ways to win now, and that's the most important part. December football, man, that's when teams get hot and they get on that stretch and they get on that run and make their way to the Super Bowl."