Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (8) passes against the Tennessee Titans in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. Hasselbeck replaced starter Andrew Luck. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Mark Zaleski
December 29, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Jim Irsay has invested three years trying to turn the new-look Colts into a Super Bowl contender.

After losing in the wild-card round two years ago and the divisional round last year, the Colts owner hopes to see his team take another step during this season's playoffs.

''We feel we're better, more talented than the last two years,'' Irsay told The Associated Press. ''But we have to go out and prove that. ''

On paper, Irsay insists the Colts (11-5) have made progress.

Quarterback Andrew Luck threw a league-high 40 touchdown passes this season. His 2012 draft classmates - T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen - have becoming increasingly bigger components in the Colts' offense. The defense exceeded expectations after losing its best player, outside linebacker Robert Mathis, to a four-game suspension and later to a season-ending torn Achilles tendon. Indy's coverage units are ranked among the best in the league, and punter Pat McAfee and kicker Adam Vinatieri are both headed to the Pro Bowl.

Irsay also understands all is not well.

The power running game hasn't blossomed the way the two-time AFC South champions anticipated, an injury-riddled offensive line has used 10 different starting combinations and penalty flags have been flying at an alarming rate. Indy has had 41 penalties in the last six games just one year after they committed a league-low 66 over the entire season.

But the most glaring problem has been turnovers. Indy had 15 giveaways in the five weeks preceding Sunday's meaningless regular-season finale, a problem Irsay repeatedly lamented during a 20-minute interview. Those trends have some expecting an early playoff exit.

While Irsay acknowledges those problems need to be fixed before Sunday's wild-card game at home against Cincinnati (10-5-1), Irsay looks to the Colts' improbable 2006 title run as a reason to believe. Indy went into the playoffs that season with three losses in its last five games, the No. 3 seed and a seemingly doomed outlook after the defense allowed 375 yards rushing in Jacksonville's 44-17 victory in Week 13.

''Tony Dungy was the only one who thought we could go on and win the Super Bowl after the Jacksonville game,'' Irsay said. ''Tony Dungy and Tony Dungy alone was the man who said, `I can fix this. We can win and we can win big.' He did and we did.''

A similarly odd twist could be a fitting finish to what might be the strangest season of Irsay's 17-year tenure as owner.

In March, he was arrested on preliminary charges of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and four felony counts of possession of a controlled substance. He left the team to enter an out-of-state treatment facility and did not return until draft weekend. In September, hours after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Irsay for six games and fined him $500,000.

Irsay declined to talk about his legal issues or the suspension - topics he addressed at length when he returned to the team in mid-October - or his personal reflections on a season that isn't finished.

''I'm doing great,'' Irsay said. ''But like I said, I'm focused on our playoff run. I'm excited.''

Especially after he spent those early weekends pacing nervously around family and friends, watching the games on television for the first time since taking over as the owner.

But after Indy lost the first two games, it rebounded to win five straight, capping the streak with a 27-0 shutout of the Bengals in Irsay's return to the owner's suite.

Since then, things have not gone nearly as well.

Indy was routed at Pittsburgh and at Dallas, and lost 42-20 to New England at home - a game that exposed some of the Colts' flaws and disappointed their owner.

''It wasn't only that we lost (to New England), it was the way we lost,'' Irsay said. ''But I like the way we've gathered ourselves.''

Things may be changing again, just in time for the playoffs.

Indy has won five of its last six despite the mistakes and produced its first turnover-free game since Nov. 3 on Sunday. Now comes the big test.

''Do we want to take the next step? Yes. Do we want to reach the Super Bowl that's going to be played in Arizona? Yes,'' coach Chuck Pagano said Monday. ''We're glad to be in (the playoffs), but (we're) never satisfied until we hoist that thing (the Lombardi Trophy).''

Irsay believes it's still possible - if the Colts can clean things up.

''We'll probably have to go through Denver and New England and then beat Green Bay or Seattle in the Super Bowl or something close to that,'' Irsay said. ''We know New England and Denver are trying to establish the run and they've been successful running the ball. So we have to bring our level of play up.''

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