The Indianapolis Colts (6-7) will travel to Minnesota to face the Vikings (7-6) this Sunday, with both teams desperate to make a push into the playoffs but with both teams needing help to do so.
The Colts are in a much worse spot than the Vikings, however, and they’ve got an incredibly slim shot of extending their season beyond these final three regular season games. In fact, they’ll be playing in a game with as little meaning as perhaps any in the Chuck Pagano era, rivaling their late-season games last year in which they had a very slim chance, though technically alive. That’s their scenario right now, and so it’s fair to wonder how much they’ll be up for this game.
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t Chuck Pagano supposed to be some sort of legend at motivating players? Well, look at it this way: the Colts played their ugliest game of the season in the biggest game of the season last week, so why should people expect this team to come out more motivated this week (with little on the line) than they were a week ago (with everything on the line)? It will be interesting to see how this team rebounds, and it’s possible that Jim Irsay will be watching that especially closely.
It won’t be an easy game for the Colts, however, as the Vikings present a very tough test, especially defensively. The Vikings are ranked second in the league in points allowed per game (17.3), second in yards allowed per game (304.3), and have the league’s third-ranked pass defense (202.2 yards per game). They’re especially strong against the pass, ranking third in opposing passer rating allowed (77.0), third in completion percentage allowed (58.6%), fourth in sacks (35), second in quarterback hits (97), tied for second in 20+ yard plays allowed (31), and tied for tenth in interceptions (12). Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, and Carson Palmer have all posted passer ratings against the Vikings this year that are more than 10 points below their season averages. This is perhaps the best pass defense in the entire NFL, and they’re also decent against the run, ranking 16th in yards allowed per game (102.1).
That’s an incredibly tough challenge for the Colts’ offense, which has had to carry the team but struggled last week. Andrew Luck is having a good season, completing 62.9% of his passes for 3,381 yards (7.5 yards per attempt), 25 touchdowns, and ten interceptions for a passer rating of 95.3 (and he’s also rushed for 304 yards and a touchdown). T.Y. Hilton is having a career year, having caught 78 passes for 1,203 yards and six touchdowns, and with Julio Jones not playing this weekend Hilton needs just 51 yards to take over the NFL lead for receiving yards this season. He’s been terrific, but the receivers after him haven’t been. Donte Moncrief has dealt with some injuries and will miss this Sunday’s game, while Phillip Dorsett has been a disappointment (catching 27 passes for 414 yards and a touchdown). The team’s second-leading receiver is actually tight end Jack Doyle, who has caught 48 passes for 496 yards and four touchdowns this year as he’s proven to be a great security blanket for Andrew Luck. The Colts will really need Doyle to step up on Sunday, as well as the team’s other tight end, Dwayne Allen, who has caught 28 passes for 328 yards and five touchdowns this year. They’ll also need Frank Gore to contribute, and he’s been having a good season so far: he’s rushed for 790 yards and four touchdowns (averaging 3.8 yards per carry) and has caught 31 passes for 237 yards and four scores.
The key to Indy’s offense, though, might be how well they’re able to protect Andrew Luck. The Colts will be playing without left guard Jack Mewhort (who was placed on IR with a knee injury this week), without right guard Denzelle Good (who’s out with a concussion), and without right tackle Joe Reitz (who’s out with a back injury). They’ll have Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Ryan Kelly at center, and Joe Haeg starting like normal, but there will be changes. Jonotthan Harrison will likely start at left guard, leaving either Austin Blythe at right guard and Haeg at right tackle or Haeg at right guard and Le’Raven Clark at right tackle. Neither option is ideal, and either way the Colts would be starting three rookies up front. And remember, this is a team that has allowed 37 sacks on Andrew Luck (tied for the second-most of any quarterback) and has allowed the most quarterback hits (95). So with all of the injuries this weekend, things could be even worse, and the Colts are going against a team that’s been great at getting to the quarterback: the Vikings have recorded the fourth-most sacks (35) and the second-most quarterback hits (97). This is a nightmare scenario for the Colts protection-wise, and it’s even worse because Andrew Luck has been dealing with right shoulder and elbow soreness from the beating he took last week. Gulp. The injuries will impact the way the Colts call plays, Chuck Pagano admitted on Friday, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them move to a shorter passing offense to try to compensate.
If the Colts aren’t able to keep Luck clean, Indy won’t stand a chance against this Vikings pass defense. They need to give him time to make plays, but it won’t be easy with the injuries they have up front, their struggles all year, and the Vikings’ pass rush. Minnesota’s pass defense is tremendous, so the Colts will have a tough challenge.
The Colts have been carried by their offense this year, but they’ll need their defense to help out this week. Since Indy is facing such a tough defense it’s hard to expect the Colts to score the 30+ points that Jim Irsay has repeatedly said they need to in order to win games, especially since the Vikings have yet to allow more than 26 points in a single game this year. Defensively, the Colts face a much easier test, but the Colts are also much weaker. The Vikings rank 19th in points scored and 31st in yards, having the league’s 24th-ranked pass offense and the 32nd-ranked run defense. Sam Bradford has had an efficient season - completing 71.2% of his passes for 2,954 yards (6.9 yards per attempt), 14 touchdowns, and three picks - but he hasn’t put up huge performances to carry the team. And the Vikings have struggled to get anything going on the ground this year, though they’ll get the return of Adrian Peterson this weekend.
By all indications, the Vikings offense isn’t that tough. But remember, neither is the Colts defense. They’re just 25th in points allowed per game, 29th in yards allowed per game, 26th in passing yards allowed per game, and 24th in rushing yards allowed per game. They’ll be playing without starting safety Clayton Geathers, starting cornerback Patrick Robinson, starting inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, and starting defensive lineman Art Jones. So this is a bad defense missing several players, meaning that plays will be there to be made by the Vikings.
What you’ve got this weekend is the Colts going on the road to face a team fighting for a playoff spot who have a great defense that is perhaps the best in the NFL against the pass. On the flip side, you’ve got a Colts team hanging on by only a thread and dealing with a number of injuries, particularly along the offensive line. This isn’t a great matchup for Indianapolis, and after they weren’t up for last week’s game, why should anyone expect them to be this week? Maybe they will be and maybe the Colts will pull out a win - that’ll depend on how much success Andrew Luck and the offense have against this really tough defense - but I’m not expecting a win.
Predicted Score: Vikings 24, Colts 20