On Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26-10 in the Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs. It was an impressive performance in many ways as a team, but it was also an impressive performance by several different Colts players - many of whom played their best game of the season. Let's look at several of the players who I think played their best game of the season on Sunday:
Andrew Luck, Quarterback
Stats: 31/44 (70.4%), 376 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 2 rushes for 18 yards
Andrew Luck has had a phenomenal season. He threw for a franchise-record 4,761 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns. This wasn't his most impressive stat line of the season - though it was the third highest completion percentage, the fourth highest yards per attempt, and the third highest passing yardage total while being just one of five games without a pick. Yet still, I think it was the best game of the season for Andrew Luck. He was completely in control of the offense, and he didn't try to force something that wasn't there - he was ok with checking it down to Boom Herron. He still made a number of fantastic throws, including the touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief that was one of the throws of the year by any quarterback. Consider that he didn't get much help, as his teammates dropped five passes and he had a touchdown pass called back due to a penalty on a receiver (and another would-be touchdown was included in the drops). Against one of the NFL's best pass defenses, Luck excelled. On Monday, head coach Chuck Pagano agreed, calling Luck's performance "outstanding" and adding that, "it was one of his best games that he's ever played I think. Just decision making, management, accuracy, taking what the defense gives you. We talk about a crumb here and a crumb there. The check downs were huge. They decided to play deep and defend, take away the big play and all that stuff, so he was great that way." I wholeheartedly agree - it was one of the best games Luck has had with the Colts, even if the stats don't fully represent it (and they're still pretty dang good).
Hakeem Nicks, Wide Receiver
Stats: 3 catches for 59 yards (19.7 yards per catch) on 3 targets (long of 45)
Hakeem Nicks has had a rough year and has been criticized often, but in recent weeks he has been stepping up. In fact, in the last four games, no Colt has more receiving yards than Nicks (221) and only Boom Herron has more catches (Herron has 18, Nicks has 17). On Sunday, Nicks had his second-highest receiving total of the season, as he caught 3 passes for 59 yards. While it certainly looks like his 9 catch, 72 yard performance against the Cowboys was better, a lot of that came with the Colts getting blown out. But on Sunday, Nicks stepped up in a game that really mattered. He made a great adjustment on a long catch and made a few other plays, actually looking something like the dependable number three receiver the Colts hoped to get with him. Sunday doesn't make the season a success (nor do the last four weeks), but Nicks has begun picking up his game and he did that again on Wild Card weekend.
Boom Herron, Running Back
Stats: 12 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown (4.7 yards per carry), 10 catches for 85 yards (8.5 yards per catch)
Ever since the loss of Ahmad Bradshaw, Boom Herron has been impressing at running back. On Sunday, however, he took it to another level and was a huge contributor to the Colts' offense. He totaled 141 yards combined on Sunday in the playoff game, and according to ESPN Stats and Info he had more total yards from scrimmage than any Colts' back in the last three seasons - in other words, since Andrew Luck arrived. Furthermore, his ten receptions were the most by a running back in a playoff game since Darren Sproles in 2011. Without a doubt, his fumbles are an issue, but the upside he showed on Sunday and the contribution he made to the Colts' offense shouldn't be ignored, as he had the best day of his NFL career on Sunday, and it's not close either.
Erik Walden, Outside Linebacker
Stats: 2 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass deflection, 1 quarterback hit
After he was signed, there was a lot of criticism for the contract the Colts gave Erik Walden, and he didn't have a very good first year with the Colts a season ago. This year, Walden has been much better, and he has shown himself to be one of the best pass rushers the Colts have. And on Sunday, while the stats weren't anything special, Walden played arguably his best game of the season. He was a big influence in the Colts' pass rush and did his job well otherwise, too. For example, when the Bengals ran an option play, Walden sniffed it out absolutely perfectly. It was things like that (and so much more, especially pass rushing) that contributed to a great day from Walden.
Jerrell Freeman, Inside Linebacker
Stats: 15 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 quarterback hit
Using ESPN's tackle numbers, Freeman's 15 tackles on Sunday was his highest total in a game since 2012, and I think that whether you look at the statistics or if you watched the game, it was clear that on Sunday it was Freeman's best game of the season. He has had a bit of a disappointing year in 2014, as he has been plagued by injuries and then hasn't played up to the level that he did in the last two seasons, but on Sunday he returned to that level and was making plays all over the field for the Colts defense. It was a return to form from Freeman and a very encouraging one at that in his best game of the season.
Greg Toler, Cornerback
Stats: 2 tackles, 3 pass deflections
In several games this season, Greg Toler has been torched by opposing receivers and quarterbacks, and while he does fill a role for the Colts, he hasn't been great, especially in recent weeks. But on Sunday, Greg Toler was great. He batted down three passes and had good coverage (though, granted, the Bengals didn't have a lot of great receiving weapons). According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted six times and allowed two catches for 20 yards for an opposing passer rating of 43.8 while Andy Dalton threw at him. He stepped up big-time as well.
A number of other Colts had great performances on Sunday as well, but those were six players who I thought played their best when the stage was biggest. Hopefully they continue to play at a high level this week. Are there any other players who you thought played their best this past Sunday against the Bengals? Agree/disagree on any I mentioned? Discuss in the comments!