What to watch for: Colts following Andrew Luck’s lead in playoff push
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting tonight with the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m.
Following their leader: With all due respect, we’ve seen enough of the Scott Tolzien era. If the Colts are going to avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98, they need to follow Andrew Luck in December. That will be the case at MetLife Stadium as the heartbeat of the Colts gained medical clearance after missing the Steelers game with a concussion.
Indy stood 6-5 at this point last season, but faded to the finish as Luck looked on from the sidelines while dealing with a lacerated kidney. Now, they’ve got the most important position on the field ably manned.
“It makes our job easy,” wideout T.Y. Hilton said. “He’s a special guy. You can’t do anything without having 12.”
It will take more than Luck, no pun intended. He’s 0-2 against the aggressive Jets and has yet to play a solid game with one touchdown, five interceptions and a 52.0 passer rating. The Colts remain a flawed team: unreliable defense, spotty run game, adventurous return game. Luck is good enough to compensate for the deficiencies, but only if he avoids poor decisions and “bonehead’’ passes.
Luck doesn’t have to play perfect. Just close to it.
Protect 12:The Jets’ reputation is one of harassing QBs, forcing them into bad plays. That’s not been the case as they’ve meandered their way to a 3-8 record. A team that generated 39 sacks last season has just 19 through 11 games. That’s three fewer than the Colts, and we’ve all been piling on Indy’s inability to consistently pressure QBs. A team that came up with 30 takeaways last season, tied for third-most in the league, has only nine, tied for third-fewest.
But the Colts shouldn’t let their guard down. The Jets love to blitz and bring pressure from different areas, and that’s been an issue for Luck’s protection, which has yielded 35 sacks. New York is vulnerable on the outside with corners Darrelle Revis, the perennial Pro Bowler who isn’t playing like one, and Buster Skrine.
If Luck’s protection holds up, it’s up to him to distribute the football and up to his receivers to win one-on-one opportunities.
“That is the NFL,” wideout Donte Moncrief said. “Corners don’t get paid to play zone. They play man. If you can’t win man, you can’t play.”
Moncrief has been a force since returning after missing five games with a shoulder injury. He’s caught a touchdown in four straight games, the first Colt to do so since Austin Collie in 2010.
Do what you do: This dovetails with the previous item. Chuck Pagano continued to preach his run-the-football sermon this week, but let’s not kid ourselves. While we still believe Frank Gore is a solid back, even at 33, the Colts will go as far as Luck and their passing game take them.
Does coordinator Rod Chudzinski need to keep the Jets honest with occasional shots by Gore? Of course. But it would be foolish to run Gore into the heart of a defense anchored by Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams, Steve McClendon and Sheldon Richardson. The Jets’ run defense ranks 4th in yards per game allowed (85.9) and 5th in yards per attempt (3.6).
“We are not going to beat our heads against a wall,” Luck promised.
In his two career losses to the Jets, Luck has had little run support: 41 carries, 134 yards.
One note on Gore. With 30 yards against the Jets, he passes Tony Dorsett (12,739) and settles into the No. 8 slot on the NFL’s career rushing chart.
Prime-time players: The Colts find themselves playing in prime time, which hasn’t been a good thing of late. Since 2012, they’re just 7-10 on the national stage. They’ve lost seven of their last eight, including five straight.
For perspective, consider the Colts were 29-7 on prime time from 2003-10.
“We have another opportunity. It’s the next game. It’s a huge game,” Pagano said. “It happens to be on Monday night and it happens to be in prime time.”
Back in the hunt: The only scoreboard watching tonight will be the one detailing Colts vs. Jets. With a win, Indy creates a three-way tie at 6-6 atop the AFC South with Houston and Tennessee. Another authoritative step could come Sunday when the Colts entertain the Texans in Lucas Oil Stadium.
With a loss, the December push for the postseason will be on fumes.
So, win. Or else.
And the winner is: Colts 24, Jets 17. Don’t use us as one of your sources to post a bet. If the first 11 games have shown us anything, it’s that you can’t trust these guys. But when in doubt, go with the desperate team. The Jets are playing for pride, which only takes a team so far. The Colts are playing for so much more.