Indianapolis Colts Playoff Destiny Suddenly Lies in Their Hands

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Indianapolis Colts Playoff
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 23: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts prepares to snap the ball in the game against the New York Giants in the second quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

A confluence of favorable events has given the Indianapolis Colts a rather simple formula to make the playoffs. Win and they’re in.

In many respects, they have the New Orleans Saints to thank. The team that defeated them in Super Bowl XLIV knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-28 on Sunday. Combined with the Baltimore Ravens‘ surprising 22-10 road win over the Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh went from AFC North leaders to now needing help to even make the playoffs.

Of course, Indy also got the job done themselves…barely. The Colts needed Andrew Luck to put this team on his shoulders like he’s done multiple times during his illustrious career. Luck’s third fourth-quarter comeback of 2018 and the 17th since he entered the league precipitated a 28-27 win over the New York Giants.

Indianapolis Colts Playoff Destiny Is in Their Control Heading Into Regular Season Finale

It sets up a mouthwatering clash with their AFC South rival Tennessee Titans to close out the season. The NFL is well-aware. The game has been flexed to Sunday Night Football and, as such, will be the final regular season game of 2018. It’s as winner-take-all as it gets, with the victor becoming the 12th and final team to officially book their spot in the postseason.

An Epic Reversal of Fortune

The fact the Colts are in this position is a testament to the resolve of this group under first-year head coach Frank Reich. After six games, Indy stood at 1-5 and the season took on a “trust the process” kind of feel. Still, only once in that span did the team lose by more than 10 points. It came at Gillette Stadium in Week Five against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, a 38-24 decision.

Two weeks later, the Buffalo Bills came to town sporting a better record. But the Colts rolled, winning 37-5 in a game that would mark the beginning of a magnificent run of form that now has them controlling their own destiny. Their only loss since then came in Week 13 when the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ defense actually showed up, enabling them to pitch a 6-0 shutout.

Luck is obviously a big reason for the turnaround. He registered a passer rating above 100 in six of the Colts’ eight most recent wins. The only two quarterbacks with a higher grade from Pro Football Focus are Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees. It certainly underscores what a fully healthy Luck is capable of.

Offensive Line Finally Protecting Luck

But football is a team game. And part of the Colts’ issues in recent years centered around Luck not having the right complementary pieces around him. The offensive line was perhaps the biggest issue and it contributed to Luck’s injury issues of the past few years.

That’s not a problem anymore. The pass protection Luck is enjoying this season is among the league’s best. Indy’s 1.1 sacks allowed per game lead the NFL. And at one point this season, the Colts went five straight games without allowing a sack. General manager Chris Ballard deserves a ton of credit for turning the line into an immensely formidable unit.

Perhaps the biggest example comes in the form of rookie guard Quenton Nelson. The Colts took the Notre Dame product sixth overall in the 2018 draft. Most draft experts tabbed him as a slam dunk prospect and that’s ostensibly turned out to be the case. Nelson currently boasts the highest PFF grade among first-year players at his position. It resulted in him getting named to the Pro Bowl. Second-round pick Braden Smith, who mostly played guard in college, is also impressing mightily since moving to right tackle.

The Usual Suspects and Some Pleasant Surprises at Skill Positions

You can’t fully describe this offense without mentioning the skill position players around Luck as well. T.Y. Hilton is reminding everyone that he’s one of the most lethal deep threats in this league. His 16.3 yards per reception is 10th among NFL wideouts. And what about the season tight end Eric Ebron‘s having? In his four seasons with the Detroit Lions, Ebron totaled just 11 combined touchdowns. His first season catching passes from Luck saw him find the end zone 12 times. He will be joining Nelson in Orlando at the Pro Bowl. One can only hope he can return swiftly from the concussion he suffered against the Giants.

One might infer from Indy ranking 21st in rushing that their ground game is somewhat deficient. But make no mistake about it. There’s plenty of talent in this backfield. Marlon Mack has emerged as the feature back in his second season with the team. He ranks no worse the 21st in the league in stats such as attempts, yards per carry, touchdowns, and first down runs. In fact, his eight scores put him in a tie for eighth among the league’s backs. Rookie Nyheim Hines is a reliable pass-catching weapon and made 60 receptions in 2018, currently ninth-best among NFL running backs.

Darius Leonard the Showpiece of a Hard-Working Defense

Of course, having a bevy of defensive playmakers is another key element to a contending team. And once again, Ballard has done a tremendous job stacking the cupboard. Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard has been a revelation. His league-leading 155 tackles are currently 23 more than the man in second, Blake Martinez of the Green Bay Packers. Second-year safety Malik Hooker is rebounding nicely from last year’s season-ending injury. And off-season free agency acquisition Denico Autry is turning out to be a prescient signing as he leads the team in sacks.

The Colts excel defending the run, boasting the league’s eighth-best rushing defense. More of the same will be needed on Sunday against the Titans. Derrick Henry is arguably the hottest running back in pro football right now, having scored eight rushing touchdowns over the past four games. And he’s only a few games removed from setting a Titans franchise record when he accumulated 238 yards on the ground in a 30-9 pasting of the Jags.

On the Precipice

Henry’s success makes it clear that Sunday’s looming clash in Nashville won’t be a cakewalk. The Titans are playing exceptionally well themselves and will come into the game on a four-game winning streak. One of the biggest question marks for Tennessee is the status of quarterback Marcus Mariota. He suffered a stinger in Saturday’s win over the Washington Redskins and if he can’t go, the team will have to rely on Blaine Gabbert. In a game with everything on the line, the advantage clearly goes to Luck in such a situation.

The Colts stand one win away from erasing years of frustration. When they lost to Brady and the Patriots in the 2014 AFC title game, it appeared to signal the beginning of an era in which Indy would be perennial Super Bowl contenders. The next few seasons afterward were a detour of sorts from that eventuality. But suddenly, things are looking bright once more. The next step is ensuring their place in this year’s postseason. And all it requires is one last triumph from Luck and his brigade in the final skirmish of the 2018 regular season campaign.

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