Well, folks, this is it. We have reached the final showdown for the Indianapolis Colts in a horrific 2017 NFL season. In a way, the circumstances are fitting. Both the Colts and Texans are missing their franchise quarterbacks and both have 18 players already on the injured reserve. The winner of this game will finish third in the AFC South and the loser will finish last. Both teams are completely eliminated from playoff contention and will be potentially rewarded with better draft positioning for the 2018 NFL Draft with a loss.
Sounds about right. As college bowl season is underway, Indianapolis hosts Houston for the Irrelevant Bowl. Two fan bases who are exhausted by an underwhelming season, fan bases torn with the desire to taste victory one last time or possibly improve their draft stock, and two teams with active rosters who are filled with players who have every incentive to make a statement and improve their chances of making it back onto an NFL roster in the off-season.
For 2017 starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, this is his last chance to show that he has made significant process in what will be his 16th consecutive start. He has shown signs that he is learning from his mistakes, getting the ball out quicker and avoiding sacks, over the last few weeks. Still, he hasn’t put together a full game to hang his hat on. It would mean a lot of his future to look like a veteran quarterback who is ready to lead an NFL offense as the season comes to an end.
Veteran running back Frank Gore has nothing left to prove to anyone but is only 139 yards away from a second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. Given that he shared the load with rookie Marlon Mack and veteran short-yardage and third down specialist Robert Turbin for much of the season, this would be an impressive accomplishment. Throw in his age, which continues to seemingly not matter, and it would mean even more. His future is uncertain and he would be served best by showing fresh legs late in the season and showing all potential suitors that he will be ready again in 2018.
A group of young defensive players will have an opportunity to close out their seasons with a final impression on General Manager Chris Ballard. Fifth-round rookie Nate Hairston has been a huge surprise for the Colts by holding down the starting nickel spot. He made a couple of costly mistakes against the Ravens that helped Baltimore steal the game away from the Colts in the second half. It would be promising to see him play a clean game and learn from those mistakes and even more promising to see him bat down or pick off a pass or two.
Undrafted rookie Kenny Moore arrived in Indianapolis via waiver claim from the New England Patriots. The growth he has shown this season is impressive. In the first few weeks, Moore was known as the guy who made mistakes and picked up costly penalties on special teams. Fans were calling for his head and blown away that he would be active while Quincy Wilson would not — and fans had every right to be blown away.
Gradually, his role expanded and he started making some nice plays in coverage units. Then he was called upon to play defense and just like with his special teams progression, he started out absolutely awful and was picked apart by opposing quarterbacks. Now, a few weeks later, he is starting to show signs of real progress. How will he close out 2017?
Rookie inside linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. has been MIA for much of the season with nagging hamstring issues. There is no position on the Colts roster that is more desperate for an infusion of young talent than inside linebacker. When Jon Bostic was placed on the injured reserve it gave Walker and Jeremiah George an opportunity to get more defensive snaps. He showed some athleticism and made a couple of plays a week ago, flashing what could be a glimmer of potential. Can he build on that this week?
With Pierre Desir and Rashaan Melvin both on injured reserve and both pending free agents, second-round rookie Quincy Wilson will get another chance to prove that he’s ready to take on a starting role for the defense. This could help Ballard as he plans to manage free agency and utilize significant salary cap space in the coming off-season. If Wilson can give Ballard a reason to believe that he should hold down a starting spot in 2018, it could allow the Colts to sign only one of Desir and Melvin and utilize the saved cap room at another position of need. If Wilson flounders and looks lost against a reeling Texans team, or if he is outplayed by Moore, he will leave Ballard in a more difficult position and jeopardize his hold on the inside track to start next year.
On the offensive side of the ball, rookie running back Mack could play a role in keeping Gore from his 1,000-yard milestone. While Gore’s future is uncertain, Mack’s future is squarely in Indianapolis. The more Mack can do to show that he is ready to take on a bigger role in the backfield, the less pressure Ballard will feel to spend big in free agency or through the draft to steal his potential carries.
At wide receiver, only T.Y. Hilton and Chester Rogers are under contract for 2018 with Donte Moncrief and Kamar Aiken pending free agents. Hilton also has a 1,000-yard milestone in striking distance and can get there with 48 yards receiving. All three of his teammates have an even greater inspiration to not just take the field but to turn in an impressive audition; Moncrief and Aiken for new contracts and Rogers to prove he can be one of the top three receivers in Indianapolis in 2018. Moncrief is inactive for a fourth consecutive game with an ankle injury.
When two teams meet under circumstances like this, it is hard to get a real read on the likely outcome. It is fair to say that this game is all about pride. Many of these players are fighting for a chance to keep their NFL dreams alive. Both teams have had seasons filled with disappointment and have one game that will leave a final taste in their mouths over a long off-season. Both teams have coaches who have been questioned and who have been under fire, with Pagano reportedly to be jettisoned after the game and O’Brien to discuss his contract in Houston shortly after the season as well.
Who wants it more? The answer to that will likely determine the outcome in this one. If there is a key to the game, this is it.
1:00 PM ET on Sunday, December 31, 2017
Lucas Oil Stadium — Indianapolis, IN
CBS — Tom McCarthy, Steve Beuerlein, Steve Tasker (sideline)
WFNI (107.5FM/1070 The Fan) and WLHK (Country 97.1 Hank FM) — Bob Lamey, Jim Sorgi, Matt Taylor (sideline)
TV National Broadcast Map
See which games will be shown in your area, from 506Sports.com.
(Retractable roof stadium) Mid-teens, AM clouds/PM sun, 20% chance precipitation, wind NNW 8 mph
Gene Steratore. He is in his 15th year of NFL officiating.
Over/Under: 41.0 | Spread: Colts (-5.5). (topbet)