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Steichen’s new direction puts Colts on the cusp of the AFC playoffs in his 1st season as coach

Head coach Shane Steichen of the Indianapolis Colts on the sidelines of Lucas Oil Stadium on Sept. 10, 2023. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts hired first-year coach Shane Steichen to take them in a new direction.

He wasted no time hiring assistants the players could trust, installing an offense they could embrace and making sure his rookie quarterback knew the playbook while urging the backup to stay prepared.

Now, they’re on the playoff precipice because Steichen never viewed his first head coaching job as a rebuilding project. He expected to win from the start, and the players believed him.

“Shane made it very clear the expectations were very high,” center Ryan Kelly said. “Execution fuels emotion and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it. I think you’ve seen that through the postgame (videos) and all the interviews he does, and the way we play. It’s a combination of all those things and really believing that we can be whatever we want to be.”

What they could be after Saturday, surprisingly, is playoff bound.

A fourth straight home victory would give the Colts (9-7) another season sweep of Houston (9-7) and their first postseason appearance since 2020. A win, coupled with a Jacksonville loss at Tennessee on Sunday, would give Indy its first AFC South title and first home playoff game since 2014, as well as a chance at its first postseason win in five years.

Outside of team headquarters, few saw this kind of turnaround coming after an abysmal 2022 season that included a constantly churning quarterback carrousel, a rare midseason coaching change and seven straight losses to finish a 4-12-1 season.

“I think all of the trials and tribulations we went through last year, it prepared us for the highs and lows of this season,” linebacker Zaire Franklin said. “I just think that every time something happened, we just came closer together.”

There were many times Indy’s season could have gotten derailed, but Steichen deftly navigated the ups and downs.

2021 All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor missed seven games because of injuries, started the season mired in an ugly contract dispute and took only one official snap with rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson.

Right tackle Braden Smith missed seven games with an assortment of injuries, Kelly entered the concussion protocol twice and top receiver Michael Pittman Jr. also had a concussion after taking a big hit that led to a season-ending suspension for Pittsburgh safety Damontae Kazee.

Seven players served suspensions.

There also was the quarterback situation. Steichen selected Richardson as the opening day starter after one preseason game, an announcement that disappointed Gardner Minshew, who followed Steichen from Philadelphia so he could compete for the job.

It didn’t take Minshew long to prove his worth.

He relieved an injured Richardson in three of Indy’s first four games, won his first start, at Baltimore, and took over for good when Richardson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5.

Even after committing eight turnovers in Indy’s next three games, all losses, Minshew didn’t flinch, and Steichen didn’t fret.

“He always gives us a chance to win and that’s what you want in your quarterback,” Steichen said when asked this week about Minshew. “Every time you step out, the players have a belief in him, the coaches have a belief in him and I think that’s where it starts.”

Minshew rewarded their patience by winning four straight to get the Colts out of the division cellar and back in the playoff chase. And given the young roster, Minshew’s playoff experience from the past two seasons with Steichen and the Eagles allowed him to take on a more vocal late-season role.

So when the Colts came out flat for the second time in three weeks, a Week 16 loss at Atlanta, Minshew spoke up about playing with urgency. Steichen reinforced Minshew’s message before and after last week’s victory over Las Vegas, which put the Colts in this win-and-in scenario.

“I think his energy and confidence really come through,” Minshew said. “This past game, he was fired up. He was fired up in the locker room before the game. I think everybody fed off that and I think it showed out there on the field.”

That has put Steichen in position to join an unusual Colts club — the fifth consecutive first-year, non-interim coach to lead Indy into the playoffs.

Tony Dungy started the run with a four-win improvement in 2002. Jim Caldwell won 14 games in 2009 following Dungy’s retirement. Chuck Pagano engineered a nine-win turnaround in 2012.

If the Colts win Saturday night, Steichen would match Frank Reich’s six-win improvement from 2018, and nobody in this locker room doubts they can finish the job.

“The message from Shane is it’s a big game, but it’s obviously the next game, right?” Kelly said. “So trust what we do, do the small things we’ve done all week, do them better than we’ve ever done them and trust what we do Saturday night.”