Last week, the Indianapolis Colts played in their biggest game of the year. Win and the playoffs are almost certain. Lose, and you're almost certain to be watching the playoffs from home. As you well know by now, the Colts lost to the Texans at home 16-10.
Now, Indianapolis is playing catch-up and desperately clinging onto the little sliver of hope that still remains. They will need help (in the Texans losing) in order to get in, but the most important part of that scenario is the Colts winning. And, considering that they have really stunk in recent weeks, that is no guarantee.
The games will be there to win, however, starting with this Sunday's contest against the 5-9 Miami Dolphins. As Matt Grecco has already pointed out, there are plenty of similarities between this year's Colts team and this year's Dolphins team, as both have failed to live up to expectations amid coaching questions.
The Dolphins lead the Colts 47-25 all-time in the series (including playoffs), but the Colts have won five of the last six. The Dolphins won the most recent meeting between the teams, however, by notching a 24-20 win over the Colts in Indianapolis in 2013. In the Andrew Luck/Ryan Tannehill era, the two teams have each won a game (the Colts in 2012, the Dolphins in 2013), and while this was supposed to be the third meeting between the two quarterbacks (both drafted in 2012) and their teams, Luck won't be playing on Sunday as he continues to recover from a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle. In his place, Matt Hasselbeck will make his sixth straight start and eighth total of the season.
Here's a preview of the game and some matchups to be watching:
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Dolphins Defense
The Colts' offense has been, by far, their biggest weakness in recent weeks. In the past three games, they have scored 10, 16, and 10 points - that won't win you many games regardless of how your defense is playing. Last week against the Texans, the Colts managed just 10 points and 190 total yards of offense in their biggest game of the year. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton this week criticized the team's play-calling as the reason for the struggles, saying that the Colts have to get the ball downfield more, and he's right. The problem comes with the fact that the Colts have a very beat-up 40-year old quarterback and a questionable offensive line. That limits what they can do. So, once again this Sunday, I'm saying that the matchup to watch when the Colts are on offense is their offensive line: can they win in the trenches against a tough Miami defensive line that includes Ndamukong Suh? Indianapolis absolutely must keep Hasselbeck clean (he's dealing with back, rib, and jaw injuries) and they must give him enough time to develop plays in the passing game. Like Hilton said, the Colts need to present a deep threat at least somewhat, and if the line can give Hasselbeck enough time to throw, I would guess that they will at least try to do so. Furthermore, the Colts need to give Frank Gore lanes in the running game to make some plays. Of course, a part of the team's struggles in the run game in recent weeks is due to the offense not opening things up (Gore has faced 8+ defenders in the box on 48% of his runs in the past five weeks, according to Pro Football Focus), but they have to be able to have offensive balance and take some of the pressure off of Hasselbeck. So, I think while there are a lot of components that go into it, the biggest key to the game for the Colts on Sunday starts up front with their offensive line.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Dolphins Offense
Ryan Tannehill hasn't been quite as great as was expected this year for the Dolphins, but he still has completed 61.2% of his passes for 3,529 yards (6.9 yards per attempt), 22 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions for an 87.3 passer rating and still presents a threat for the Colts' defense. According to Pro Football Focus, however, Tannehill has been pressured on 40.3% of his throws, which is the fifth-highest in the NFL. So you begin to get the idea that the Dolphins allow a lot of pressure on Tannehill, which is good news for a Colts team that lacks pass rush threats. If the Colts can get to Tannehill, however, they can both disrupt the Dolphins passing game and keep it shorter, allowing their cornerbacks less time in coverage and improving the defense overall. Unlike in some past weeks, it actually seems somewhat reasonable that the Colts might be able to get some pressure with Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, and others this Sunday, and if they do that would be huge. There are other aspects of the Dolphins' offense that can be dangerous, but if the Colts' biggest weakness could step up on Sunday, they would stand a great chance at being able to limit the Dolphins' offensive effectiveness.
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts are a mess, but the Dolphins are right there with them. Both have been disappointments this season, and Miami has not played well for much of the year. The Colts defense should be able to have a solid day against the Dolphins offense, and if the offense (and Adam Vinatieri) can capitalize on that and put up some points, they should be able to pull out a road victory in Miami in December. The Dolphins are already eliminated from the playoffs but the Colts are still clinging to slim hopes, giving Indianapolis more to play for. In a game between two bad teams, all the Colts have to be is a little less bad, and there's plenty of reason to think that could happen.
Why the Colts Won't Win
Does anyone have any confidence in the Colts' offense to score enough points after watching them the past three weeks? If you do, I'd have to ask you what you've been watching, because Indy's offense has been horrendous. If they can't get things going this Sunday, it won't really matter how well the defense plays because their offense won't be able to keep up - that's what happened last Sunday against the Texans. The Dolphins are 5-9, yes, but they have a few pieces in place. If the Colts' offense can't be any more effective than in recent weeks, they almost certainly won't be winning this one.
I don't have confidence in either team to lose this game. I think it really all comes down to the Colts' offense: how productive are they going to be? If they're going to be terrible like they have been in recent weeks, I don't see a way the Colts win this one. But if they're going to be an average offense like we saw for the first five games with Matt Hasselbeck, then I think they are going to win this game. I could really see this one going either way, but in the end I think the Colts - and Adam Vinatieri - will find a way to pull out a tough road win and hopefully keep their playoff hopes alive.