(Reuters) – Two teams that know the peaks and valleys of the National Football League all too well clash on Saturday when the Kansas City Chiefs visit the Indianapolis Colts for a wild-card showdown.
The Chiefs, one year removed from a two-win campaign, are the Cinderella story of this NFL season after opening with nine straight victories and clinching their first playoff spot in four years.
A season ago it was the Colts who reached the playoffs one year after going a dismal 2-14.
But the clock will strike midnight for one team on Saturday in Indianapolis where the AFC South champion Colts (11-5) will host the wild card Chiefs (11-5).
“Any time you can be a part of the turnaround, it’s a special feeling,” said Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. “These guys have worked hard and deserve a ton of credit.
“It’s special to be a part of this.”
The Chiefs, seeking their first playoff win in 20 years, can attribute their revival to head coach Andy Reid, who arrived after being fired by the Philadelphia Eagles, and hard luck quarterback Smith.
Smith, the top pick in the 2005 draft, was never able to silence critics during seven turbulent years with San Francisco before finally losing his starting job to backup Colin Kaepernick midway through last season.
More steady than spectacular, Smith has never thrown for more than 3,313 yards in a season but finds ways to win, posting a sparkling 30-9-1 record over the last three years.
The Colts are also led by a top draft pick in quarterback Andrew Luck, who has had big shoes to fill after taking over for future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
In two seasons, Luck has guided Indianapolis to 22 wins and passed for 8,196 yards, the most ever by a player in his first two campaigns.
But while Luck has exceeded expectations the second year quarterback must still prove he can deliver when it counts most and win a playoff game.
“We know the postseason’s a whole different ball game and it’s one-and-done,” said Luck. “We’re excited about that.”
Luck, who tossed 23 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, will be wary of an opportunistic Chiefs defense that struggled late in the season but still finished with the second most takeaways (36).
The Chiefs offensive line will have to be on the lookout for Colts linebacker Robert Mathis who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks.
After a mid-season swoon that saw Indianapolis drop three-of-five contests, the Colts have found their stride and head into the playoffs riding a three-game win streak, including a 23-7 thrashing of Chiefs two weeks ago.
In contrast, following their spectacular 9-0 start the Chiefs sputtered down the home stretch losing five-of-seven including their last two.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)