Well, this is it. The NFL regular season has been different during this pandemic but it is about to reach its conclusion. COVID-19 has impacted the outcomes in numerous games but the league has placed the responsibility on each franchise and its players to follow protocols to keep exposure to a minimum. It has worked out better for some than it has for others and now a playoff berth is on the line for numerous teams in the AFC in Week 17 — including our Colts.
For Colts fans, the story has been discussed all week that the loss to Pittsburgh last week means Indianapolis will need help to make it into the playoffs. Of course, the most important step toward the playoffs is winning at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars. A loss means the Colts are out. From there, Indianapolis needs one of the following teams to lose: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, or Tennessee Titans.
The Ravens are playing a broken Bengals team who will be without their best players. Baltimore knows it must win to earn a spot in the playoffs and it seems entirely improbably to expect that Cincinnati will be the answer for the Colts.
The Browns are playing a Steelers team that has decided to rest key starts, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Cleveland has a long history of failure to combat and one can only imagine they’ll be highly motivated to pummel a Steelers team who is content rolling over in the final week of the season.
The drama leading up to this game has been whether the Buffalo Bills plan to play for the number two seed in the AFC playoffs. If they want to play for the seeding, they’ll need to try to win the game. This likely means playing quarterback Josh Allen, along with other key starters. As of this writing, it sounds like this is the plan. Assuming the Bills show up to play for the number two seed, this game against the Dolphins represents the Colts’ best chance at getting in.
Of course, there is another interesting scenario that could play its way out this week and that is the Tennessee Titans traveling to Houston the face a Texans team that will have Deshaun Watson and a highly motivated J.J. Watt who has called out his teammates and demanded they play harder every week for the fans. What makes this particularly interesting is that neither team has a great defense and it’s a divisional game. Watson is a better quarterback than Tannehill but Derrick Henry is much better than anyone Houston has toting the rock.
Stranger things have happened, making it entirely possible the Colts could win the AFC South with the Texans topping the Tennessee Titans.
As previously noted, none of those iterations matter without a win. Here are the keys to making that happen today.
PLAY A FULL GAME
Perhaps the most irritating attribute of the 2020 Indianapolis Colts is that both sides of the ball are terribly inconsistent. The defense has shown signs of being absolutely dominant. For much of the season, it has shown these signs in one half of each football game. Early on it was the second halves of games where Matt Eberflus came out of the half with big adjustments and stifled opponents. In Pittsburgh, the defense was calling out Ben Roethlisberger’s plays and giving the Steelers nothing. This all fell apart in the second half and led to another disappointing loss at Heinz Field.
The Colts’ offense has also been up and down. There have been signs in the latter half of the season that the offense was hitting its stride. Philip Rivers has been incredibly efficient for most of the back-half of the season and even the Colts running game started to get going as Jonathan Taylor started to break out and Nyheim Hines served as gift change-of-pace running back on third downs and as a pass-catcher. Of course, which it mattered most a week ago, the offense was putrid.
If the offense and defense can be consistent throughout the game against the Jaguars, they should have no issue taking care of business. They’ll need to prove they can do this against an inferior opponent this week because they’ll need to continue doing this in the playoffs if they hope to advance.
RUN THE DAMN BALL
The Colts will be without Anthony Castonzo at left tackle. The actual plan has been kept a secret but no matter what the plan is, Philip Rivers will be under more pressure without Castonzo than he would be with him. If Frank Reich can establish the running game early, he can help buy more time for Rivers and set up the play-action passing game. If the running game is not working, Rivers will be asked to carry the Colts to the playoffs and that will decrease Indy’s chances.
Don’t misunderstand, Rivers has largely played good football and has a career indicating he can carry his team to the playoffs when he is needed. However, a one-dimensional offense that must focus on the pass with a makeshift offensive line isn’t a desirable situation to be in, no matter who is under center.
If Jonathan Taylor can get to his 1000+ yard season, the Colts should have a really good chance of getting the win.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
The Colts defense has been excellent at creating turnovers this season. Whether through interceptions or forced fumbles, one of the unit’s calling cards has been bend but don’t break and make big plays in key moments. For most of the season, Colts fans have been arguably more comfortable with the team’s defense on the field than they have with the offense in control.
This is another game where unforced errors and turnover differential will be key. One easy way for the Jaguars to sweep the Colts and get the upset win is to take away possessions. If the Colts are able to take care of the ball on offense and if the defense can take advantage of a short-handed Jaguars offense to create turnovers, Indianapolis will likely do its part in the final push to the playoffs.