Andrew Luck might be the NFL's latest comeback kid.
Now the 24-year-old quarterback and his Colts teammates must show the league they can be pretty good front-runners, too.
After spending all of last season chasing the Texans in the AFC South, Indianapolis had to do it all over again Sunday night by rallying from an 18-point third-quarter deficit to pull off a stunning 27-24 victory that gave them control of the division race.
"We feel, obviously, good about where we're sitting right now, but again, we've got a long way to go," coach Chuck Pagano said Monday. "We just stress to our guys take a beginner's mentality. Let's treat it like it's the first game of the season, practice, whatever. You've got to come to work with intentionality, find the things that you need to work on to get better and never be satisfied with where we're at."
For most of these young Colts (6-2), playing the role of favorite is a whole new world.
Indy entered 2012 ranked as the worst team in the NFL. It wound up going 11-5 and reaching the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons.
This year, some of the so-called experts chided the Colts' success by insisting they had merely gotten "lucky" and that against a non-last place schedule there would be a correction in 2013.
Instead, the Colts are ahead of last season's victory pace, largely because they have thrived in the most extreme circumstances.
Of Indy's 17 wins under Pagano, 10 have come courtesy of Luck's winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. That's the most in the NFL over the last 24 games. The Colts also are 13-2 in one-possession games, and this year Indy has outscored opponents 101-57 in the second half and 59-29 in the fourth quarter — with 16 of those fourth-quarter points coming in Denver's futile comeback attempt Oct. 20.
And last week when some outsiders were talking about the Colts running away in the AFC South, veterans such as Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea slammed on the brakes by reminding their younger teammates the road to the AFC South went through Houston.
"It was a division game and it was one we had to get," said receiver T.Y. Hilton, who caught all three of Luck's touchdown passes Sunday. "They're the defending division champs and we had to give them everything we had to get the win."
Now comes the harder part — learning how to protect the lead.
Sunday's victory kept Indy two games ahead of second-place Tennessee (4-4) and expanded the lead over Houston to four.
With wins at Jacksonville and Houston, the Colts can go for the road sweep Nov. 14 when they visit Tennessee In their fourth prime-time appearance in a month. Win that, and the Colts could go three up on the Titans with six to play — and likely would have the inside track to holding the first tiebreaker, too, as they continue to add to an already impressive resume.
Indy is 4-0 against playoff teams from last season and has only two more left on the schedule — at Cincinnati on Dec. 8 and against Houston on Dec. 15. The Texans have never won in Indy.
Indianapolis routed the defending NFC champion 49ers, on the road, and rallied to beat this year's latest NFC favorite, Seattle, at home.
It ended Denver's quest for perfection by outscoring the NFL's No. 1 offense, and it outplayed the league's No. 1 defense in the second half as Houston scrambled to get back in the division chase.
But the Colts understand that this is a long way from over — and they're a long way from being a finished product.
Trent Richardson is averaging 3.0 yards per carry since joining the Colts in a Week 3 trade and hasn't scored since Week 4. Hilton played well in the second half at Houston, but Luck's passing stats (18 of 40) demonstrated how tough it will be to replace injured Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne the rest of this season. Luck, who the Colts wanted to protect better this season, has been sacked 19 times compared with 41 in 2012. He continues to take dozens of hits, and the defense that only yielded three points over the final 30 minutes, was fortunate to not allow more than 21 in the first half when Andre Johnson torched the secondary for nearly 200 yards and three TDs.
And to stay in front of the pack, Pagano knows the Colts have to start finding some solutions.
NOTES: Pagano said receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who left in the second half after taking a shot to the head, has not been diagnosed with a concussion. But Pagano said he will continue to be examined this week.
Author: MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer