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Report card: Colts get a ‘B’ for hitting bye at 3-2, defining stretch ahead

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 06: Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts walks the field during pregame warm-ups prior to action against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on October 6, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – They share the same end game – that would be a Feb. 2 business trip to South Florida for Super Bowl LIV – but aren’t in lockstep in assessing the journey.

Frank Reich is Mr. Short Term.

Jim Irsay is Mr. Big Picture.

Nothing wrong with either approach. But as much as his Indianapolis Colts have bought into Reich’s “1-0 every week’’ mantra – trust us, it’s the overriding reason the franchise is sitting at 3-2 and very relevant during its bye week – the owner’s vision is more attractive to us.

More to the point, it gives us something to talk about as the Colts step back and take a breath before what promises to be an interesting and grueling two-and-a-half month stretch.

This was Irsay outside the locker room Sunday night after his bunch stunned the heavily-favored Kansas City Chiefs 19-13 in Arrowhead Stadium: “One of the best regular-season victories in the history of the franchise, honestly, based on the first half of the season.

“We just couldn’t be happier.’’

Then, Mr. Big Picture took over.

“It changes the whole dimension of the conference,’’ Irsay said. “Puts us in first place (in the AFC South) with the tiebreaker if we had to against K.C. This is that type of game that can do that.

“We talked about it. Can we get the bye week and that sort of thing? We’ll see later as the season goes, but boy, the guys are so happy in there.’’

First, and for the sake of, you know, accuracy. The Colts are tied with Houston atop the AFC South, but the Texans hold the oh-so-early tiebreaker. The playoff picture has Houston as the division champ and No. 3 seed. Indy is the No. 7 seed.

But remember, we’re five steps into a marathon.

What’s undeniable is the next five weeks will tell us virtually everything we need to know about the Colts, most notably their level of relevance in December and, perhaps beyond. Four of those games are at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The combined record of the next five opponents: 7-17. The rundown: Houston (3-2), Denver (1-4), at Pittsburgh (1-4), Miami (0-4), Jacksonville (2-3).

Handling the Texans at Lucas Oil is Priority 1 and would establish Indy as the team to beat in the division (Houston visits what promises to be an angry Kansas City Sunday). The subsequent four are against teams in varying degrees of disarray.

If you’re a playoff/championship-caliber franchise, this is when you step up and prove it.

And that’s where Mr. Short Term steps in to tamp down the looking-ahead crowd and keeps everyone laser focused.

“We really don’t get caught up in that,’’ Reich said. “I mean yes, it’s a bye week so you look at that stuff. I’d be lying. I would also be lying if I said you don’t look at it.

“I learned a long time ago, even watching other games and you are saying, ‘Who are we rooting to win for here?’ I don’t even worry about  . . . ‘What’s our record? What is the record of everybody else?’ All you know is you’ve got to win your next game.’’

Not surprisingly, that was Reich’s message to the team before it scattered for the bye week.

“Everybody has a 1-0 mantra,’’ he said. “Everybody at some level thinks like that. But what we have to have as our edge is we just have to have as deep a conviction about that as possible and understand that it sounds so simple, but it’s not easy to do. We have to distinguish ourselves and separate ourselves by how we handle that mentality on a daily event out at practice.’’

Without question the most significant aspect of the bye week is its rest-and-recover aspect.

All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard used his Instagram account to announce he’s been cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol. He’ll return against Houston after missing three games. The extra week should increase the possibility of Clayton Geathers returning from a concussion that kept him out of the Chiefs game. There’s a chance safety Malik Hooker (knee) is back, but he might be another week away from that occurring.

The idle week also will benefit T.Y. Hilton (quad) and Marlon Mack (ankle).

Before we head into a quiet weekend, here are our grades for the first 5 games:

OFFENSE: B+

Reich’s seeking a top-5 running game, and that’s where it sits. Mack also is 5th with 470 yards. The offensive line is making it work. At the risk of jinxing things, it must be pointed out the Colts are the only team that has had its quarterback and starting o-line take every snap thus far (358). Kudos to Jacoby Brissett, Anthony Castonzo, Quenton  Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith.

We have two concerns.

First, Mack is on pace for 323 carries. That’s too many over the course of the season. Can Jordan Wilkins handle a heavier load as a backup? Finally, the passing game needs to stretch its legs. Brissett is averaging just 6.4 yards per attempt and 9.8 yards per reception. Hilton is averaging 9.7 yards per catch. The last time the Colts’ averaged less than 10 yards per catch? Never. For the running game to remain vibrant, there has to be more of a downfield threat.

DEFENSE: C

In a What Have You Done for Us Lately? world, the Colts deserve an A for their outing at Arrowhead. Coordinator Matt Eberflus went against his zone-heavy philosophy, played much more man-to-man, pressing coverage and absolutely stoned the Chiefs. But one night can’t erase the previous month that was marred by inconsistency and ineffectiveness. Prior to the Chiefs’ stunner, the defense offered few highlight moments – one being the late stop that sealed the win at Tennessee. Too much leakage against the run. Too much damage in the passing game. Trouble getting off the field on third down.

Injuries to Leonard, Hooker, Geathers and Tyquan Lewis have impacted continuity. So has having to rely on so many rookies (Khari Willis, Rock Ya-Sin, Bobby Okereke, etc.)

SPECIAL TEAMS: C

Adam Vinatieri seemingly has regained his form. He’s hit 7 of his last 8 field-goal attempts, and the miss was a 57-yarder against the Raiders. At Arrowhead, he was 4-for-4. That has quieted the storm created by Vinatieri’s first two games: three missed PATs along with 46- and 23-yard field-goal attempts.

No complaints with Rigoberto Sanchez or the coverage/return units.

COACHING: A

Game-planning has been top drawer. It’s been flexible and aggressive on offense. An interesting stat: the Colts are perfect and lead the NFL on fourth-down conversions (7-for-7). Reich’s best job was the sudden adjustment following Andrew Luck’s Aug. 24 retirement. While he always was going to accentuate the running game, he had to transition from one quarterback adept at pushing the ball down the field (Luck) to one better suited to a short and intermediate game.

As we mentioned, Eberflus earned his paycheck at Arrowhead.

OVERALL: B

Considering the rash of injuries to top-end players (Leonard, Hilton, Hooker, Geathers), the Colts enter the bye 3-2. That’s probably the top end of everyone’s expectations. They gave away a win against Oakland, but made up for it at Arrowhead.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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