Win or go home.
The Indianapolis Colts may not be completely eliminated from playoff contention with a loss at home against the Dallas Cowboys but it should approach the game that way. The margin for error has disappeared. The last few games will determine everything and the toughest game during the final stretch, at least on paper, is against a hot Cowboys team that has taken off since it pilfered the Oakland Raiders in the Amari Cooper trade.
While the teams play in different conferences and only meet every four years, outside of preseason, there will be a great deal of familiarity on both sides of the ball. Dallas is in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles. Frank Reich’s offensive style is similar to Doug Pederson’s and the Cowboys have to face that offense twice a year. Indianapolis Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus brings a lot to the table. The Cowboys will be looking at a defense that is eerily similar to the one they practice against throughout the week — as will the Colts. Reich and Eberflus will both be familiar with Dallas’ offense as well.
In a battle of coaching wits and likely few surprises, which team will prevail? The following keys could determine the outcome.
No team has been more consistently recognized for its line play over the last four or five years than the Cowboys.
Fortunate for the Colts, the unit is having an off year.
Dallas has allowed 48 sacks this season, which is the second worst total in the NFL behind only the Houston Texans. The Colts? Second best in the NFL with only 16 sacks allowed.
Matt Eberflus did a masterful job of keeping Deshaun Watson uncomfortable last week in Houston. He forced Watson to stay in the pocket, drew up stifling zone coverage, and allowed the speed of his defense to take advantage. This week will require more of the same.
If Dak Prescott is trapped in the pocket, good things will happen. Drives will end. The field position battle will turn in Indy’s favor.
Ezekiel Elliott is the most talented running back the Colts have faced all season. He has the ability to take over a football game and can turn a small crease into a big play. He leads the league in rushing yards.
Can Anthony Walker and Darius Leonard use their speed to eliminate him from the game plan? Can the Colts offense establish a lead and force Dallas to throw the ball?
This game will be a big test for Indy’s defense and will go a long way in legitimizing this season’s success against opponents on the ground. How much of it is due to a relatively weak slate of rushing opponents?
We are all about to find out. If Elliott is unable to get things going, Prescott could be a sitting duck.
LEAN ON LUCK
While the Colts are far more successful in games where they are able to maintain offensive balance, Andrew Luck is the heartbeat. If there is one player who turns the tide in favor of the Colts in any game it has to be Luck.
He is having an incredible season and has proven to the world that he can make every throw. He has been given the time to scan the field, allow plays to develop, and the space to step up into the pocket to connect with his targets on methodical, rhythmic drives that tire out opposing defenses.
His command of the offense can determine today’s outcome. Dak Prescott has no interest in getting into a shootout with Luck.
COMPLETE THE CATCH
I mentioned margin for error. It is very small. Games are determined based upon the outcome of only a handful of plays. The Colts cannot afford to throw away opportunities.
A young group of pass catchers has a nasty habit of trying to run before they secure the ball. They have a habit of tipping a ball in the air instead of knocking it down. Sometimes they have a habit of letting the ball get into their chest or bounce off of their hands. This can’t happen down the stretch.
If Indianapolis can reduce or eliminate unforced errors, it can force the Cowboys to do the same. Mistakes happen in every football game and, today, the Colts need to be sure that they allow the bulk of them to occur on the other sideline. Securing catchable passes will go a long way toward reaching that goal.
MAKE THE REICH CALLS
It has been a long time that Colts fans have been able to look back at a season and debate whether aggressive decisions at key moments in games were the right choice. The franchise has featured a relatively conservative head coach since at least the late 90s.
This year, the team has taken on an entirely different attitude. Frank Reich has been aggressive almost to a fault. Some of the time, this has worked out in his favor. Other times, it has resulted in disaster.
Reich is nearly through his first season as an NFL head coach and needs to finish the season on a high note. What has he learned from the calls he’s made to this point? How will they impact his play-calling in difficult situations today? If it comes down to a tough decision, will he make the Reich one?
The answer to that question could easily be the difference between a playoff berth or an early off-season.