Just six weeks ago, the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Denver Broncos in prime time, running their record to 5-2 on the year and making a case that they deserved to be treated seriously as contenders in the AFC.
Just four weeks ago the Kansas City Chiefs were 9-0, and some observers called them the best team in football.
Now with still three weeks left to play, what was once a possible AFC Championship game matchup has devolved into a four versus five affair of two teams no one one believes in any more.
It's all Reggie Wayne's fault.
He is, of course, the best defender in NFL history.
It may seem premature to preview the Chiefs and Colts. After all, it's entirely possible the two teams don't actually meet in the first round of the playoffs. However given the nature of the tiebreakers at work in the AFC, Indianapolis has 93.6% odds of being the fourth seed and the Chiefs have 94.7% odds of being the fifth. In many ways, the almost inevitable clash sets the story board for explaining the conference coming into the playoffs.
After beating San Francisco, Seattle and Denver in less than a month, the Colts represented the possibility of new life for the conference. Behind Andrew Luck, they looked like a team capable of halting the Denver Broncos seemingly inexorable march to the postseason. Then they lost Wayne.
Since Wayne's knee injury late in the Broncos game, the Colts have seemingly imploded. They've split six games, but all three wins were narrow victories over bad division opponents. Against the rest of the league, they are 0-3 and have lost by an average score of 40-16.
While the Indy offense has understandably languished with out their leader, the alarming trend has been on defense. Since toppling the Broncos, the Colts are allowing 29 points a game. All this while playing the likes of Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Palmer, Kellen Clemens and Andy Dalton.
Who knew Wayne could rush the passer?
Of course, Wayne's injury has nothing to do with Indy's defense coming unglued. In fact, there's good reason to wonder if they were ever 'glued' to begin with. They played poorly against Seattle, San Diego and Denver allowing 26.7 points to those three opponents. For some reason they got credit for "playing well" against Peyton Manning despite allowing 33 points to a man who could barely walk.
Meanwhile, the shine has come off the Chiefs' defense as well. After a 9-0 start that culminated in two defensive scores helping to win a game in Buffalo, many tauted the Chiefs as the team who would stop Manning's run at the single-season touchdown record.
He threw six in two games against them.
Before righting the ship against the festering corpse of the Washington Shanahans, the once-vaunted Chiefs defense had allowed more than 34 points a game over a three-game losing streak. Just like that the potential surprise player in the race for the Super Bowl was relegated to a Wild Card slot and a potential one-and-done in January.
While neither team is playing well at this point, the consensus is that Kansas City should tidily dispatch the Colts setting the stage for a potential rematch with Denver.
Chiefs fans have reason for optimism. On paper, this game is something of a mismatch.
There's no question that Kansas City is the better ball club. They aren't a great team. They probably wouldn't even be a playoff team in the superior NFC. But they are unquestionably a better team than the Colts are.
The problem Indianapolis faces is that there is no area of the game in which they excel. They don't run the ball well. They don't defend the pass or the run. And without Wayne, they haven't passed well either.
No, Mrs. Lincoln did not enjoy the play. Thanks for asking.
Still there is hope for the Colts. Much of their struggles on offense have centered around a lack of production from the receiving corps. With Darius Heyward-Bey taking center stage after the injury to Wayne, production from the passing game has, well, dropped off. However, an encouraging second half from Da'Rick Rodgers and LaVon Brazill against the Bengals provides hope.
Indianapolis has a luxury most struggling teams don't. With their spot already clinched and their seeding all but secured, they can treat the stretch run as an extended preseason. They can use it to help establish rapport with Luck and his newfound receiving options. Perhaps when the calendar flips to 2014, they'll have something to build on.
There isn't much if any rational explanation for why Indianapolis would be competitive against a superior foe. Arguing for a Colts victory is only one step away from a reliance on voodoo. "It's magic" doesn't fly in the world of NFL analysis. These two teams will play in Week 16 in Kansas City, and in all likelihood, the Chiefs will curb stomp the Colts. Even if Kansas City wins by 50, however, it won't change the fact that they have to travel to Indy for the playoffs.
What the Colts have that the Chiefs don't is a quarterback who inspires total confidence. Indianapolis has shown over the past two years an uncanny ability to win games they shouldn't. Luck has a knack for elevating the play of his teammates at just the right time.
Believing that the Chiefs will trounce the Colts means maintaining faith in Alex Smith. He's played well enough this year, but does have a weakness. He takes a lot of sacks despite a relatively low YPA. While Indianapolis does not have an effective pass rush as a unit, they do have Robert Mathis who has shown the ability to alter games, most recently the victory over Denver.
Of course, Kansas City could just elect to hand the ball off all afternoon. They do average 4.7 yards a carry and they'll face a defense that allows 4.4. Indy has given up at least 120 yards on the ground in eight of their last nine games, six times allowing 140+ yards.
Hey, no one ever said it was going to be easy. Not without Reggie Wayne to plug the middle, right?
If the game is close, the Chiefs' massive advantage in special teams could come into play. They have among the best punt and kick units in the game, though their sparking numbers were greatly aided by the total collapse by Washington in Week 14.
While all the evidence points to Kansas City in a walk, the NFL postseason has little to do with the best team winning. Even if they fold down the stretch, Indianapolis could well make like the 2008 Arizona Cardinals or the 2010 Seattle Seahawks. Even a mediocre team can score a big win in the playoffs at home.
The Indy defense has been terrible most of the season, but only needs to find a few of the turnovers they used early in the year to mask their rampant deficiencies at every position. In other words, they'll have to catch a few breaks the way they did against Seattle and Denver.
The Colts will have the home field, and they'll have the better quarterback.
The only thing they won't have is Reggie Wayne.
On either side of the ball.