Let's not get ahead of ourselves. This deal isn't done yet.
The Colts still need one more good performance at home on Sunday to make the playoffs. After the way this season has gone, it would be insane to take anything for granted. The way things have gone, Reggie Wayne's left arm could fall off at practice on Friday. There's nothing easy about beating a division rival at home with a playoff berth on the line. These chickens haven't hatched and no one is counting them yet. (now that I've successfully applied my anti-jinx protection, let's move along shall we?)
After the Dallas game, this team sat at 6-6 needing to win four consecutive games to make the playoffs. Ignoring for a moment that last night's game wasn't really a must win, let's take a moment to appreciate the fact that three weeks later, the Colts have ripped off three of them, two on the road.
I know that years like 2008 need to be celebrated in context. Given everything that's happened to this team this year, it's amazing that they are actually just a few bad breaks away from competing for a bye. More to the point, they are one win away from tying the NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances at 9 and would be more than halfway to the 49ers record 16 straight 10 win seasons. A season full of adversity that pays off in a home playoff game? I'll take it. While there is still a credible path to the Super Bowl for the Colts that doesn't require any herculean upsets (NYJ, @Balt, Pitt), I'll be plenty happy with the 2011 Colts even without a trip to Dallas.
Even though the Colts didn't technically need to beat the Raiders, they did so anyway. This team hasn't shied away from anything this season. They haven't quit. They haven't made excuses. You get the feeling that internally, the team feels like a snake in the grass. They have the second highest scoring offense in the NFL. The league's best team, the Patriots, have one of the great offenses ever, but also a terrible defense. They are also scared to death of a rematch with Manning. Is it a long shot? Yes. Could it happen? Yeah, it could.
Suddenly, at the end of it all, this team has figured out how to defend the run again. Suddenly, every 220 lb back who comes down the pike isn't throwing fear into our hearts. There are still problems on defense, mostly caused by a seriously decimated secondary, but it's encouraging to see. Dwight Freeney has played like a man possessed all season, and while it's been a modest year for him sack wise (one yesterday takes him to 9 for the season), he's been a force for the last several weeks.
The return of the run game certainly challenges the popular notion that Bill Polian did a horrible job constructing this offensive line. It's amazing what can happen when good running backs start to get healthy. It's shocking the results when you stop giving carries to a guy from the practice squad. When your big blocking tight end finally heals up, suddenly there are actual holes to run through. The last two games, against admittedly suspect defenses, the Colts have used the run as more than just a decoy. Once again, suggesting that maybe injuries really were to blame after all.
As we look at this season (nearly) saved, that's the one lesson we can take away. Injuries aren't an excuse. No one feels sorry for you just because guys are hurt. However, they are a valid reason. It is fair to grade coaches and front office staff on a curve when forced to work with one hand tied behind their back. Everything doesn't have to be a sign that Manning is old or hurt or that the sky is falling or the window closing. Sometimes you just have trouble winning because you lost too many good players. Injuries are never an excuse. But yeah, they are a reason.
Three straight playoff games have come and gone. I'd love to see this team win two or three (or five) more.