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The ultimate wildcard opponent: the Las Vegas Raiders

The Colts (8-7) must find a way to beat the inconsistent Raiders (7-8) as the playoff push intensifies.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Week 17, the Colts hold on the final AFC Wildcard playoff spot is quite precarious. Indianapolis sits atop a logjam of 8-7 and 7-8 teams vying for that final postseason slot, essentially making Sunday’s matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) a must-win.

The Colts know they need to win Sunday. What’s unclear is who their opponent will be at Lucas Oil Stadium. Yes, Indianapolis will play the Raiders, but which version of the Raiders will show up?

It’s true that every team in the NFL shows some variability in their performances from week to week. Look no further than the Indianapolis Colts over the past five games. The unpredictability of the league is one of the reasons it’s so popular. But, in a league full of inconsistent squads, the Raiders are the ultimate wildcard.

It’s been a tumultuous year in Las Vegas at key spots - notably head coach and quarterback. The team has played under two coaches this season. Interim head coach Antonio Pierce took over in Week 9 after Josh McDaniels - a beloved man here in Indianapolis - was fired on Halloween. And the team has been led on the field by three different quarterbacks: Jimmy Garoppolo, Brian Hoyer and now Aidan O’Connell.

On paper, Pierce has brought some stability to the organization - the team is 4-3 under his leadership - but the last three weeks have been a rollercoaster.

In Week 14, the Raiders generated 202 total yards and zero points in a 0-3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The game was the lowest-scoring NFL game in 16 years.

Just four days later, in an incredible swing in the opposite direction, Las Vegas dropped a franchise-record 63 points in a win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Then last week, in a bizarre game on Christmas Day, the Raiders defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, 20-14. The Raiders scored on two defensive touchdowns and two field goals from Daniel Carlson. Meanwhile, O’Connell totaled only 62 yards passing and did not complete a pass after the first quarter.

What does this mean for the Colts? It’s hard to say, but Shane Steichen is preparing for the best version of the Raiders.

“They’re playing at a high level,” Steichen said. “It starts with 98 (Maxx Crosby), one of the best players in the league. Obviously, we gotta have a plan for him. (Malcolm) Koonce on the other side, he’s playing really good football. They’ve got good players on the back end. I think they’re playing with a lot of energy and a lot of effort. (They got a) big win, obviously, over Kansas City last week. And, offensively, they have a lot of weapons. Davante Adams, a premier receiver. The back (Josh Jacobs) is really good. The tight end (Michael Mayer) is good. (Hunter) Renfrow is a good player. They have a lot of talent, so we gotta be ready to roll. We have to bring great energy, great effort come Sunday and go out and execute.”

The Colts, too, have been inconsistent on the field over the last month-plus, but the team has played very well in its last two home games. Helping the cause further will be the likely returns of offensive tackle Braden Smith and wide receiver Michael Pittman.

The offense struggled mightily to get on track last weekend in Atlanta without Pittman, and Smith will provide a big lift in the effort to stop Raiders pass rushers Crosby and Koonce.

This feels like an impossible one to predict. Whichever Raiders team comes out of the opposing team tunnel on Sunday, the Colts must find a way to win.