INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts' shoes are scuffed, their clothes are all wrinkled. They’re scruffy and they don’t smell very good.
They are not, as they’ve often been at the start of the playoffs, the pretty playoff entry.
They don’t particularly care.
Their ninth consecutive playoff berth may have been the most difficult of the batch, and has come with stains and scratches. They hope it all helped forge something that will produce a four-game win streak to stack on top of a four-game winning streak.
Their chance to begin the next one comes Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium against the New York Jets. The Colts capped the streak to finish the regular season with a 23-20, last-second win over the Tennessee Titans. It was a win the Colts didn’t need to secure a berth -- the Jacksonville Jaguars' loss in Houston assured the Colts were division winners -- but it boosted them to the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
Not bad for a team that was rampaged by injuries, spent a good share of the season struggling to run the ball and was 6-6 on Nov. 5 after an overtime loss to the Cowboys.
“It’s not been pretty,” team president Bill Polian said. “… It’s been tough, but they play 60 minutes and that’s what we’re most proud of, those of us who have been around this team for all these years. This team is not the prettiest, but boy they play 60 minutes every single game.
“We’re not pretty like we used to be. But they are a special group of guys, they work their tails off and they find ways to get it done.”
Polian liked one columnist's assessment that the road was “a new kind of hard.”
In the locker room, guys spoke proudly and with a sense of accomplishment.
The Titans, woeful in seven of their previous eight, played about as well as one could imagine. But they offset Dominic Rhodes’ late fumble with a mishandled snap Kerry Collins couldn’t recover.
Indianapolis moved 37 yards from there to set up Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
Said Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson: “For us to lose as many guys as we did due to injury and to go through a spell in the middle of the year where we just didn’t play very good football and to be 6-6 and have the naysayers say we’re done and the torch has been passed and all of that, the good thing about this team is we didn’t listen to all that.
“We just kept working, we kept grinding, we knew if we took care of our business, we were going to be OK. For it to end like this, for us to win this division is a special deal.”
The Colts showed more of an uncanny ability to survive bad moments and find enough good ones.
Consider Pierre Garcon.
On a third-and-2 play early in the second half, he broke open down the right side between Jason McCourty, who let him go, and Cortland Finnegan, who had to take a sharp angle to cut over and try to get to him. Peyton Manning’s throw was low, but certainly catchable. Garcon booted it.
Indy punted and the Titans drove to a touchdown that tied it at 13.
But on the Colts’ next possession, Manning didn’t hesitate to look to Garcon again, and this time his picture-perfect 30-yard pass settled over McCourty and over Garcon’s shoulder on the right side of the end zone for a score.
The Titans responded again and it was 20-20.
Then possession went back and forth and back and forth. Indianapolis had it five times, Tennessee had it five times and no one really came close to points. The sixth time the Colts got the ball, they got to the 25-yard line, they called their final timeout with 3 seconds left, they had Vinatieri positioned as he likes and they let him finish things off.
The celebration was mild, not wild. It’s the way the Colts think.
On top of the bag he brought with him to the game, Tamme placed a plastic bag bearing his 84 in black marker. Inside were his AFC South Champion hat and T-shirt, as yet untouched.
“I think a few people wore them, I just now got to it,” he said. “I might put it on my head for the night, you’re talking me into it. Then, once the 24 hours are gone, it’ll go to the closet. We’ll be looking for another one ...
“It is a great honor to be division champs. It’s our first goal at the beginning of the year, to win the division. It’s been a long road to get here, but we got that done. I think we can wear it for a night, happy but not satisfied.”