INDIANAPOLIS -- It is all well and good (and a cliche) to think of this week's team of the week in the AFC East, the Indianapolis Colts, as moribund before the Eric Dickerson trade and a contender after it.

Perhaps it is more telling to think of the Colts in terms of what they were before they hired Ron Meyer as coach 13 months ago and what they have done since Meyer took over:

Pre-Meyer, 1986: 0-13.

Post-Meyer, 1986-87: 11-6.

So there was some life in the Colts before the trade for Dickerson, who came from the Los Angeles Rams in a three-team deal on Halloween afternoon. The Colts have one message for the football world, in fact: "We were going to be a good team without Eric Dickerson," right guard Ron Solt said. "He just speeded up the process."

They're not very good yet, but this is a good year to be above average in the AFC East, the division superiority forgot. The Colts (8-6) are one win away from their first playoff appearance since 1977. An Indianapolis win Sunday at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) would give the Colts at least a share of the division title; add a Miami Dolphins (8-6) loss Monday night against the New England Patriots (7-7) and the Colts would have their first outright division championship since 1970, the year the NFL and AFL merged.

Regardless of what Miami does, Indianapolis has its fate in its hands entering the final weekend of the regular season, which must be the greatest oddity in this strike-marred year.

"Truthfully," Dickerson said, "the team is better than I expected. The offensive line is better than I expected. The city is better than I expected. The whole situation has been positive for me."

You've got to credit the Colts' rise to Meyer, General Manager Jim Irsay's relentlessness in trying to obtain Dickerson and a backlog of maturing high draft choices obtained because of mediocre seasons.

Meyer might be the NFL's comeback-of-the-year story. In 1984, he was fired by New England (with a 5-3 record) and, with nothing to do, became a sports agent in Dallas.

"I've not been dealt many pat hands in my life," Meyer said in his office after a recent practice. "I've not been handed many warm beds in the football world. I took over UNLV {in 1973} when they were 1-10 and bankrupt. I took over SMU {in 1976} . . . and I wasn't the first choice there. I took over New England after they went 2-14 {in 1981}, and I was their third choice."

The Colts had plenty of time to build an ample base for Dickerson. This was the ninth straight year Indianapolis picked in the top half of the draft. The Colts built an offensive line with Ray Donaldson (round two, 1980), tackle Chris Hinton (round one, 1983, acquired from the Denver Broncos in the John Elway trade) and Solt (round one, 1984); a linebacking corps with Barry Krauss (round one, 1979), Johnie Cooks (round one, 1982) and Duane Bickett (round one, 1985), and a defensive line with ends Donnell Thompson (round one, 1981) and Jon Hand (round one, 1986).

But they still have problems at quarterback, where No. 2 pick Jack Trudeau and injury-plagued Gary Hogeboom haven't been the answer, and with speed at wide receiver, where a complement to Billy Brooks (first 27 NFL games: 112 catches) is needed, and at nose tackle and strong safety.

The Colts had vowed not to trade Cornelius Bennett, the linebacker they chose in the first round of the 1987 draft. But when Irsay found the Rams willing to deal Dickerson in late October, the vow and promising running back Albert Bentley went down the drain.

"The trade had a symbolic meaning," Irsay said. "It waved a magic wand over the franchise. It was a realization that anything can happen in Indianapolis, be it trading for an Eric Dickerson or making it to the Super Bowl. Those things don't just happen in San Francisco or Chicago."

The Colts are 5-3 since the Dickerson trade. Five times in those eight games, Dickerson has rushed for more than 100 yards, and in the 9-7 win in Cleveland Dec. 6, he had 98.

"We're still inconsistent," Irsay said, and a recent nine-quarter touchdown drought and the 27-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills nine days ago bears that out. "It's the battle to play consistent football that we need to win."

Now, at least, they have a vehicle, in Dickerson, and some fuel, in all the other fine young players. What a difference a year makes.

"Late in the season," Irsay said. "We're playing for the playoffs, not draft position."