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Unlike 2011 Colts, this team is getting better as season winds down

Chuck Pagano's Colts sit at 3-7, but they've been playing better in recent weeks. Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts are in foreign territory. It’s a territory so unfamiliar that’s it’s only the second time in the past 15 seasons they've experienced it.

At 3-7, the Colts are under .500 through the first 10 games for just the second during that 15-year window. The other time that occurred came in 2011 when they started 0-10 on their way to finishing 2-14. They ended up with the No. 1 overall pick and had a 2012 draft class that featured quarterback Andrew Luck, receiver T.Y. Hilton, tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and running back Vick Ballard.

Could history repeat itself and the Colts be on their way to having the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft?

That’s not likely going to happen.

Yes, the current Colts are without their starting quarterback for the entire season the same way the 2011 team didn’t have Peyton Manning. But that’s about it when it comes to similarities between the two teams.

It was clear that the 2011 Colts were destined for one of the top couple of picks in the draft the following year. They didn’t get the first of their two victories that season until Week 15. The current team is tied with Denver and Chicago for the fourth-worst record in the NFL while only being a game behind from potentially dropping all the way to the 15th spot in the draft because of the logjam of teams with a 4-6 record.

It wasn’t that long ago when it seemed like the 2017 Colts could resemble the 2011 team. They were thoroughly embarrassed by the Jacksonville Jaguars 27-0 on Oct. 22. They gave up 518 total yards on defense and quarterback Jacoby Brissett was sacked 10 times, which tied for the second most given up in franchise history.

Indianapolis was 2-5 at the time. That would have been a perfect time for general manager Chris Ballard to fire coach Chuck Pagano. The players could have become selfish by quitting on Pagano and the franchise.

The opposite occurred.

The Colts, who likely will miss the playoffs for a third straight season, changed. And it started in practice.

The Colts are allowing only 293.3 yards per game over their past three games, and teams are converting just 34 percent of their third downs during that span.

“There's no substance for time with each other,” veteran safety Darius Butler said. “Since that Jacksonville game, everybody has been on the same page. In practice we’ve been competing more against each other; the starters against the starters more often. I think that’s paid dividends for us.”

Will the Colts make a run and catch the Jaguars for first place in the AFC South? That's unlikely. They’re four games behind them with only six to go and they’ve still yet learn how to play a complete game. They've especially struggled in the fourth quarter when the opportunity presents itself for wins. But the Colts will compete. The front office will use the final six games to thoroughly evaluate the roster for the future because there will be more changes coming in the offseason.

The Colts are on the verge of being the healthiest they’ve been all season, minus Luck (shoulder), safety Malik Hooker (knee) and defensive lineman Henry Anderson (throat). Safety Clayton Geathers (neck) is on schedule make his season debut against Tennessee on Sunday. Linebacker John Simon (neck) is expected back from his four-game absence, and quarterback Jacoby Brissett will start barring any kind of setback from his concussion.

“We’ve had some tough, tough losses, as you guys know, and they’re hard,” Pagano said. “We’re disappointed, but you never get discouraged. We signed up for 16 of these, and we’re going to play every last one of them. But the whole idea is to get better every single week, and we’re seeing the byproducts of the way we’re practicing now, some things that we changed up, trying to simplify, trying to make it so guys can play fast. We’ve got to finish, and we’ve got to close out games.”