Early in the season, they were easy to forget about. As the season developed, they were easy to dismiss. But, on the heels of their 22-16 road victory in Arizona (gamebook) (summary), the Indianapolis Colts can no longer be forgotten or dismissed. As the playoff picture comes into focus (with just two games to play) the 9-6 Colts are sitting right in the middle of the action. If they playoffs started today, they would be headed to Buffalo for a WildCard showdown with the Bills.
It wasn’t always this way.
Five weeks into the season, the Colts sat at 1-4. That they were tied for second in the division is more a reflection on the AFC South. At that point, they were two games behind the 3-2 Tennessee Titans (having already lost to them). They were tied with Houston, with both of those teams one game better than 0-5 Jacksonville.
As they fought their way back to a 5-5 mark, they were still easy to dismiss. Their five victories came at the expense of Miami (who started 1-7), Houston (4-11), San Francisco (2-4 after their loss to the Colts), the Jets (another 4-11 team), and 2-13 Jacksonville. They had played tight games against many of the NFL’s better teams, but consistently came up short. They lost to Seattle by 12 points, lost a three-point game to the Rams, were beaten twice by Tennessee (by 9 points and then by 3 at home in overtime). They also lost by 6 in overtime against Baltimore.
That loss seemed particularly telling. They had led that game 22-3 early in the third quarter. If not for a missed extra point and two missed field goals (a 37-yarder that was blocked and a 47-yarder that missed as time expired) Indy would have won that one in regulation. With two pushover division foes contributing four conference wins, the Colts – at this point – looked like a likely playoff participant, but not a team to be overly concerned about.
That perception has changed as the Colts have continued their surge, winning four of their last five. Yes, one of those wins came against the lowly Texans, but the other three wins came in convincing fashion against teams that are clearly in the playoff mix. They beat Buffalo (currently 9-6 and leading the East) 41-15. They have followed that up by pushing around the New England Patriots (also 9-6 and second in the East) 27-17, to go along with their Christmas day win in Arizona against the 10-5 Cardinals.
Their only loss since Week Eight came at the hands of the defending world champions from Tampa Bay. In their Week 12 loss to the Buccaneers (38-31), they took a 10-point lead into the half. It was a bizarre game, as Indy muffled Tampa Bay’s top-ranked passing game (holding Tom Brady to 226 passing yards and an 88.6 rating) but were skewered by Leonard Fournette (100 yards on just 17 carries) and a Buccaneer ground attack that accounted for 142 yards and 4 touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
Now, with only 8-7 Las Vegas and Jacksonville standing between them and an 11-6 record, the Colts have moved up to fifth in the league in scoring (420 points) and – with Jonathan Taylor’s 1626 rushing yards leading the way – up to second in the league in rushing yards (154.9 per game). This is a team that can’t be looked past anymore. Their Christmas win came despite losing (to injury or COVID) 4 starting linemen, Darius Leonard – the heart and soul of their defense, Rock Ya-Sin – a starting cornerback, starting safety Khari Willis, and possession receiver Zach Pascal (who has 36 passes caught this year).
While – as injury/COVID impacts go – Indianapolis hasn’t necessarily been the league’s hardest hit team, this is – nonetheless – a significant amount of chaos to deal with. Especially as several of these COVID casualties showed up on the list the morning of the game. In some ways, the Colts are built for the kind of chaotic season. Taking their cue from their ever-steady head coach Frank Reich, this team just does not panic – not when they were 1-4 and not when they were forced to re-invent their roster just hours before the game.
Sometimes You Just Can’t Win
In the post-game interviews, the focus will frequently center on the performance of the quarterback. That would prove true after this game as well. But, if you didn’t watch the game and only heard the questions being asked, you would think that the team survived in spite of a sub-standard performance from Carson Wentz – the man behind center. Both Wentz and Reich answered numerous questions about a few off-target passes in the third quarter that cut a couple of drives short.
That seems to be how everyone is with Wentz this year. Coming off a final disappointing season in Philadelphia, the world seems quick to note those moments when Carson falls short, and struggles to remember those times he’s performed well. Yes, Carson missed a couple of throws in that quarter. But Carson Wentz was probably as responsible for the victory as any other single player on the team.
Yes, Taylor gained his 100 yards rushing, again (108 to be exact) – doing so largely on his own. With the re-tooled offensive line providing little push, Jonathan accounted for 85 of those yards after contact (3.1 per carry), breaking 3 tackles along the way.
The rest was Wentz, who finished the evening completing 18 of 28 passes for 225 yards and 2 touchdowns – leading to a passer rating of 112.9. In a turnover-free effort, Wentz led the Colts to an 8-for-15 performance on third-down (53.3%) and was particularly effective on his deep throws. Only 6 of his 28 passes were directed at targets more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, but Carson completed 5 of them for 108 yards. This includes going 2-for-2 for 53 yards and a touchdown on passes of more than 20 yards.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but like the rest of his team, Wentz is a survivor.
Merry Christmas, Indianapolis
Offsetting the joy in Indianapolis is the frustration in Arizona on the heels of a game that was there for the taking. Two missed field goals and a missed extra point account for the difference in the score right there. Toss in a safety on a poor snap that bounced past quarterback Kyler Murray and rolled into the end zone and a critical illegal contact penalty that erased a would-have-been turnover, and you get the picture.
Arizona ended the game with 11 accepted penalties that cost them 85 yards – most of them legitimate, as the officiating crew shared a bit in the holiday giving.
Late in the second quarter – Indy up 9-6 – the Colts were driving. Just before the two-minute warning, Carson Wentz scrambled on a third-and-five, with the officials awarding him the first down on what looked to be a very generous spot. Under other circumstances Coach Kliff Kingsbury might have challenged. But Arizona had already lost an earlier challenge, and even though he would probably have won this one, the risk of losing that final challenge with still more than half the game to play seemed too great. So, the play went unchallenged. Four plays later – and with 52 seconds left in the half – a phantom pass interference call against Marco Wilson gave the Colts a first down at the Arizona 13-yard line. While this drive didn’t end in a touchdown, the penalty allowed Indy to survive their own holding penalty on the next play and still stay in range for the field goal that gave them a 12-9 halftime lead.
It was that kind of game.
Panic in the Desert?
A three-game losing streak for a team that began the year 7-0 might be a cause for panic among some. Within the team, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of panic. Much of the damage done them during the skid has been self-inflicted and thus under their control.
One developing point of concern is Murray and the passing game. Through their 7-0 start, Kyler was leading the NFL in completion percentage (73.5%), had thrown 17 touchdown passes to just 5 interceptions, and held a 116.8 passer rating (football’s second highest rating). In the five games he’s played since, Kyler has seen his completion percentage drop to 63.5%, has thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdown passes (4), with a passer rating of just 80.4 (NFL average is 90.8). According to the Sportradar group that handles the “advanced stats” for the football reference site, Kyler’s accuracy has dropped from a superior 84.9% in those first 7 games to just 73.7% since (NFL average is 73.7%).
Some of the answer lies in the latest defensive approach to Kyler. Keeping him in the pocket is only the first part. What teams are doing now is circling him into the pocket, keeping tall defensive linemen right in front of him, forcing the diminutive Murray to throw over top of them. This affects his deep passing more than his short game. Against the Colts, Kyler was 15-19 (78.9%) on passes from the line of scrimmage to ten yards out, but just 3 for 11 on passes of more than ten yards. Beyond just generally cleaning up the mental mistakes, Arizona may want to put some thought on getting Murray out on the edge and out from under the redwoods.
Back in Control
While Indianapolis was dropping out of sight during the season’s early weeks, the Buffalo Bills were soaring. Their 38-20 Week Five conquest of the Kansas City Chiefs gave them a 4-1 record and bragging rights over the AFC. They then lost 5 of their next 8, including a home loss to the New England Patriots. New England’s concurrent six-game winning streak pushed them two games ahead of Buffalo in the division and put them in position to put their collective feet on the Bills’ necks.
But Buffalo got off the mat with a Week 15 win over Carolina, while the Colts were busy ending New England’s winning streak. Now just one game separated the Bills and Patriots, as Buffalo made the journey into Foxboro last Sunday.
Early in the first quarter, we were given a glimpse into the type of game this would be. After an initial three-and-out from the Patriots, the Bills went 61 yards to paydirt on their first possession, taking 6:57 and 13 plays to get there. New England answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive that took 13 plays and chewed up 7:09 of the clock. Buffalo then came back with a 68-yard, 10 play, 5:27 drive that resulted in a field goal.
The two teams combined to produce 7 drives that covered at least 60 yards, took at least 10 plays, and ground at least four minutes off the clock. Along the way, the Bills and Patriots combined to go 8 for 10 on fourth down.
After Buffalo took a 17-7 lead into the half, they opened the third quarter with a 14-play, 64-yard, 5:58 drive that led to a touchdown. The Patriots responded with a 75-yard, 14-play, 7:21 drive for a touchdown. On their turn, Buffalo moved 66 yards for the next touchdown – that drive taking just 9 plays and 4:59. Ten plays after the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots were back in the end zone, following a 75-yard drive that took 4:05 off the clock. Then it was Buffalo, again, celebrating a touchdown after a 13-play, 75-yard drive that drained another 5:07 off the clock.
Down, now, 33-21 with just 2:30 left in the game, the Patriots mounted one final effort. But, with 1:13 left, and facing a fourth-and-ten from the Buffalo 49, the Bills’ defense finally made the game-clinching stand. It was Safety Micah Hyde with the game-sealing interception on the Bills’ three-yard line (gamebook) (summary).
Considering that this was anyone’s game right up until Buffalo’s final touchdown drive, the statistics were surprisingly lopsided. Buffalo outgained New England 428-288, won the turnover battle 2-0, and converted 6 of 12 third downs – while allowing the Patriots to convert just 1 of 10 for the game. Buffalo never punted, controlled the clock for 35:09 and ended 7 drives in the red zone.
But Buffalo only turned four of those red zone opportunities into touchdowns, kicking two field goals and turning the ball over on downs in their other opportunities.
In a matchup of football’s two tightest pass defenses, the Bills won both ends of the challenge. The Patriots entered the contest holding opposing passers to just a 70.3 rating – second lowest in the NFL, behind only Buffalo. The Bills entered the contest leading all defensive football in completion percentage (57.8), yards per pass attempt (5.75) touchdown passes allowed (11) touchdown percentage (2.4), and passer rating 66.7.
They went on from there to make life generally miserable for New England’s Mac Jones, who completed just 14 of 32 passes for 145 yards and 2 interceptions – a 31.4 passer rating. Josh Allen – Buffalo’s signal caller – prospered against the stiff Patriot defense, throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns on his way to a 104.4 passer rating – breaking New England’s string of 8 games in which no opposing passer had managed a rating higher than 73.1.
Key to the matchup was fifth receiver Isaiah McKenzie. With receivers Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis sidelined (COVID), Isaiah made the most of his opportunities. With defensive back Myles Bryant in constant trail position, McKenzie caught 7 passes for a career-high 103 yards.
And that was just the second half.
He finished the best game of his career with 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. As much as anything else, it was a situation of Buffalo having one more talented receiver to throw into the route than New England could effectively cover.
So, now the Bills and Pats are tied at 9-6, having split their season series. The next tie-breaker is division record – where Buffalo currently holds a one game lead with each team having one more division game to play. Buffalo’s remaining games are against Atlanta (7-8) and the Jets. New England finishes against Jacksonville and an 8-7 Miami team (in Miami) that is riding a six-game winning streak of its own and is trying to crash the postseason party. The path forward is more direct for the Bills, but in the most chaotic NFL season in recent memory, anything can still happen in these last two weeks.
Concern in Buffalo
While the stars are aligning for the Bills, there is also some reason for concern in Orchard Park. In their losing effort, New England ran for 149 yards (averaging 5.5 yards per rush). They thus become the fourth consecutive opponent – and fifth in six games – to run for at least 137 yards against Buffalo. The Bills have surrendered over 200 ground yards in two of those games. Over those last six games (which they have spilt 3-3) Buffalo is being pushed around in the trenches to the tune of 161.2 rush yards a game and 4.8 per carry. New England’s Damien Harris plowed through them for 103 yards in just 18 carries. He piled up 71 of those yards before contact from a defender (a distressing 3.9 per carry).
This is a significant concern. There are a good many AFC playoff teams that emphasize the run – including the two that have already put up 200 rushing yards against the Bills (Indy and New England). This conference also includes dominant running teams in Tennessee and Baltimore who will hope to be reasonably healthy come playoff time.
Add to this the fact that Buffalo’s own running game is pretty thin after quarterback Allen – who does most of the heavy lifting in that department – and the fact that their home ballpark in mid-winter can be significantly pass-adverse, and you have a full-blown “situation.”
Their lingering inability to slow the run game may very well lead to an early playoff exit for the Bills.