It’s an unfamiliar feel to a familiar situation for Indianapolis Colts fans.
The familiar: The team enters the final week of the season getting ready for the playoffs, and regardless of a win or loss against the Hosuton Texans on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, their seed is locked in.
The unfamiliar: We will actually see the Colts starters play all (or at least the majority of) the game.
Anyone who has watched Colts football since 1998 knows that when Indy had everything wrapped up they could have wrapped up, the head coach (Tony Dungy or Jim Caldwell) and the GM (Bill Polian) would rest their starters in last game or two of the season. You’d be able to find more than a few Colts fans who could suspect that is one of the main reasons so many Colts post season runs ended in failure. Whether or not that is true, I’m not a liberty to say. I can say I think it’s a great thing that Head coach Chuck Pagano (welcome back, coach!) and GM Ryan Grigson are treating this far differently than any Colts fan has seen. I always thought it a great disservice to rest your starters – for fans and the players themselves. The players want in those last games because it could mean the difference between getting released or re-signing with the team on a nice, big fat contract. And obviously fans who spend anywhere from $75 – $5,000 (authors note: I made these numbers up) for season or single game tickets, they deserve to see the best product on the field possible.
Yes, the chance of injury is there, and if your star quarterback, reciever, defensive end, or other key player goes down, it will make things much tougher. But how is that any different than any other week? Say you rest your starters and on the first play of your first playoff game, your MVP quarterback gets hit and breaks his leg? What did you gain? Nothing. And you still lost a whole lot. Bottom line is that it is better for the game overall that the best players play in the last games.
That being said, the Colts face a very stiff challenge against the Texans, a team they lost to 29-17 just two weeks ago. The biggest issue that Indy experienced in that early game was protection for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Things don’t look to be any better this week. Starting center Samson Satele has been ruled out for this week, and back-up center A.Q. Shipley and starting right tackle Winston Justice are also listed as questionable (50% chance of playing). The Colts also have significant injuries on the defensive side of the ball: Nose tackle Antonio Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding are both out, ans safety Tom Zbikowski and linebacker Kavell Conner are questionable. And that doesn’t include the 13 other players out for the season in IR. When you consider that, it’s truly an amazing feat that the Colts have made it this far.
If the Colts are truly playing to win this week, it is absolutely tantamount that they get some sort of protection from Luck against All-Pro and likely Defensive Player of the Year end J.J. Watt. In the game two weeks ago, the Colts had no answers when Watt brought the heat. He logged 3 sacks, 4 more QB hits, and 10 total tackles (6 for a loss). You cannot let one man disrupt the entire offense like that and expect to win. The Colts should bring additional protection in tight end Dwayne Allen to help keep Watt at bay. Will it work? Probably not, but they’ll give it the old college try.
They also need to figure out how to keep Andre Johnson and Arian Foster from doing what they want this time around. Johnson caught 11 passes for 151 yards and Foster ran 27 times for 165 yards – with most of that came in the 4th quarter when it was needed the most. The best way to limit Johnson’s impact won’t come from corners Vontae Davis and Darius Butler/Cassius Vaughn, but from the defensive front. OLBs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who each got a sack last time, need to bring more pressure to force Texans QB Matt Schaub into making quick throws and/or bad decisions. Regarding Foster, I’m not confident there is much they can do to keep him at bay, but if the team tackles better and limits their defensive penalties, they might have a chance.
For the Indy offense, the need to get off to a fast start. If they can grab an early lead and get a quick stop or two, it will really help keep Foster from making an impact. However, the offense has to be able to protect Luck better for this to happen. And believe me when I say this: If Luck is constantly getting hammered, and the game looks like its going nowhere for Indy, the Colts should and will pull their rookie. Yes, the starters should play the majority of the game, but there’s no sense in sacrificing them if things are out of hand.
With all of this being said, the most important factor in this game will actually come from the Texans. Remember, two weeks ago, the Colts were only down a score heading into the 4th quarter, and they lost badly to the Minnesota Vikings last week by a score of 23-6 (a team the Colts beat back in week 2). The Texans should come out fired up. Win this game, and they have the #1 overall seed in the AFC locked up. Lost, and it’s possible they get knocked down to the #3 seed and lose their first-round bye to New England. This is basically a must-win game for Houston, and little more than a week 17 preseason game for Indy.
My 5 Predictions
Andrew Luck – Luck’s week 15 numbers weren’t great (13/27, 186 yards, 2 TDs), but weren’t bad either. With the poor protection he’s been getting from the injured and inconsistent offensive line, I see no reason they will be much better. Let’s give him 16 completions on 34 attempts, 210 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception.
Vick Ballard – Ballard had his best performance of the year against Texans in Houston, logging his first – and only – 100+ yard game. The Colts will need him to duplicate that success to help keep pressure off of Luck. On the FieldTurf surface in the Friendly Confines, I say he can do that. Give Ballard 103 yards on 22 carries.
Matt Schaub - After the beat down the Texans received last week from Minnesota, where Schaub completed 56.3% of his passes for 178 yards and no touchdowns, you know he and the coaching staff will be ready to bring it against the Colts 19th ranked pass defense. Schaub again completes over 70% for 310 yards and 3 scores.
Arian Foster - The Colts held Foster to 34 yards rushing in the first half – then he went nuts, gaining 131 yards in the second half. I think Foster’s attack will be more balanced this time around, but just as effective. Foster carries 25 times for 147 yards, and gets a touchdown this time.
Final Score – The Colts will put up a decent fight, maybe even up until the 3rd quarter again, but the Texans will ultimately prevail and earn their #1 seed with a 31-17 win.
Andrew Luck misses on Pro-Bowl
News came out early this week that the AFC Pro Bowl team would in fact feature a quarterback from the AFC South. The only problem with that, as far as Colts fans are concerned, is that the Texans Matt Schaub, not Andrew Luck got the nod. Luck has better yardage (4,183 vs. 3,733) and the two are almost dead even in scores (Luck has 21, Schaub 22). But the voters were likely detracted by Luck’s completion percentage (54.3) and interceptions (18), where at this point he doesn’t even come close to Schaub. However, they also must have not taken into full account that the team around Luck is far less talented than that around Schaub, that Luck has the NFL record for most yards (season), yards (game), wins, and comeback wins for any rookie in NFL history. But all is not lost, Colts fans. I would still bet it is highly likely you will see Luck in Maui, as either Schaub, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning will be playing the Super Bowl and won’t be able to make it.
Chuck Pagano makes anticipated return
The biggest story of the NFL (maybe even all of sports) this year has been how the Indianapolis Colts have succeeded after their head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia during their week 4 bye. We know the story well now – the Colts are 10-5 and in the playoffs under interim head coach Bruce Arians – but the story comes full circle this week against the Texans. Pagano will make his first appearance on the sidelines since the team’s 22-17 loss to Jacksonville at home. It will truly be a special moment that should bring out more than a few tears, and you can be damned sure the Indy crowd will give a standing ovation for this momentous return. Regardless of the game’s outcome, this will be the most special moment of the entire season. Welcome back, Coach.
Dwight Freeney’s last home game as a Colt?
Dwight Freeney has been a mainstay on the Indianapolis front seven since he was taken with the 11th overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. All he has known his professional career has been Indianapolis and the Colts organization. But Freeney’s contract runs out after this year, and it’s not certain the team will bring back the 11 year veteran. Since switching to the 3-4 this year, Freeney has been injured and put up less than stellar stats – 10 tackles, 4 sacks, and 1 fumble. Those aren’t really the kind of numbers that make an organization jump up and say “we have th bring this guy back.” My personal gut feeling is that you will see Freeney in another jersey next season, but that isn’t a given. The Colts have the cap space to sign him (they will have well over $40 million) and GM Ryan Grisgson and coach Pagano may want to give Freeney another opportunity to learn the defense better. But, if this is indeed the last home game Freeney plays in the horseshoe, I just want to say thank you, Dwight. You’ve been one of the most special players in club history, and we will cheer for you wherever you play (as long as it’s not against us).
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