INDIANAPOLIS — Colts head coach Jim Caldwell has likened it to a game of "make it, take it" basketball. Quite simply, the Colts win, they keep playing for something other than pride; if they lose, they miss the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.
In Week 15, the Colts maintained control of their playoff destiny by adapting. They took Jacksonville's brand of football — pound the rock and play solid run "D" — and executed it more effectively than the Jaguars.
Indianapolis piled up a season-high 155 rushing yards on only 24 carries, including second-year player Donald Brown's first 100-yard day, to Jacksonville's 67 yards on 22 carries. Indianapolis' offense is built around timing and finesse, but on Sunday, it punched Jacksonville in its mouth, and the normally physical Jaguars were clearly not ready for a fist fight.
"(Caldwell) challenged both the interior fronts on both sides of the ball. ... Both answered the bell," said QB Peyton Manning, who threw for 229 yards and two TDs. "I thought our guys took that to heart. ... It was encouraging to see. When you run the ball and stop the run, it certainly gives you a chance to win. It doesn't guarantee you, but it gives you a chance."
It has been a mostly painstaking season for the Colts, who have been not just bitten by the injury bug but nearly swallowed whole and have watched their usually perfect field general make more mistakes than usual as a result. But they have continued to battle and, despite a new obstacle at every turn, are two wins away from clinching their seventh AFC South title in the division's nine years of existence.
Standing in the way are two more physical, smash-mouth rushing teams, the Raiders and Titans. With zero room for error, the Colts must find a way to duplicate Sunday's effort against electrifying backs like Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson.
Defensive captain Gary Brackett appears ready for the challenge: "We have said it all year; we are going to define ourselves. ... It is just pride and you have to love what you're doing out there. Someone is going to tell you that they are going to run it down your throat, I mean I like to see it."
The following are three areas where the Colts excel if they reach the postseason, and three areas that remain concerns, plus a peek at their postseason chances.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Manning advantage: Critics are quick to point out Manning's career-worst three-game slump earlier in the season when he threw 11 interceptions — which he clearly has recovered from — but how many QBs in the league would have their team in the same position with so many key injuries to the offense? The answer: maybe Tom Brady, maybe Philip Rivers ... maybe. Manning's willingness to put in the extra time with his young teammates has made a huge difference, keeping the offense potent despite missing Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Joseph Addai and so many others. The way he meticulously dissected the Jaguars' defense at the line of scrimmage and ran the no-huddle offense to perfection is a great illustration of what an advantage being able to control the tempo of the game is. Not only did it keep the Jaguars on their heels, it halted them from getting proper personnel on and off the field.
Speed kills: When the Colts get a late lead — especially at deafening Lucas Oil Stadium — Pro Bowl DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis know it's time to take over. Opponents can't double-team both of the speedy edge rushers, so they are forced to pick their poison. One of the greatest luxuries of having Freeney and Mathis is that it allows the Colts to play more zone coverage, increasing the likelihood of the quarterback making a mistake if the hungry QB killers don't feast first. With the Colts' "D" also hurting, Freeney and Mathis are invaluable.
Not their first rodeo: Having big-game experience is a big advantage, and the Colts' roster, despite featuring more rookies who are playing key roles than it has in the past, is full of experienced players who are not going to allow the gravity of the moment hinder them. Exhibit A: The Colts not succumbing to the pressure the way the Jaguars, who turned the ball over two times in the second half on Sunday, did. For the Colts, postseason football is about as familiar as it gets. Indianapolis has had a target on its back before, and until a team dethrones the Colts, they remain a club that can do damage in the playoffs.
CAUSES FOR CONCERNS
Run "D": Sieve or stout? Until its dominant performance against the Jaguars, Indy had struggled mightily defending the run. The Tampa-2 defense that the Colts operate incorporates smaller, faster defenders who are taught first and foremost to keep plays in front of them and not allow the big play. The problem that often arises is that teams sustain long drives by pounding it on the ground and utilizing the short passing game. When the defense is unable to get off the field, the Colts' biggest weapon, Manning, naturally can't get on it.
Balancing act: The fact that defenders continue to bite on Manning's play-action fake despite the Colts not presenting any threat to run the football is a testament to Manning, who sells it as well as anyone who has ever put on a uniform. But it certainly doesn't tempt opponents to bring more defenders up in the box. Instead, defenses dare the Colts to run the football by operating almost exclusively in nickel and dime packages. But without two of its top three running backs for a large part of the season, and featuring an offensive line that is not properly equipped to run the football, Indy has been mostly one-dimensional. It doesn't matter how great Manning is, balance is required to keep defenses honest. However, in the Colts' last two victories against solid run defenses, they have made significant progress.
Walking wounded: Sixteen players have been placed on injured reserve and countless others have missed a good chunk of the season. The Colts are still hopeful to get a few key pieces back, including RB Joseph Addai and WLB Clint Session, but the loss of WR Austin Collie to another scary concussion and the injuries in the secondary are troublesome. With CB Jerraud Powers and S Bob Sanders the latest additions on the I.R. list, the Colts' depth in the secondary is dangerously thin.
Despite the ground game and run defense putting forth their best efforts of the season last Sunday, the Colts are only going as far as Manning takes them. But if those other critically important pieces of the puzzle can continue to make life easier for Manning, there is no reason the Colts can't make another run deep into the playoffs. The Ravens, Jets and Steelers have all recently shown chinks in their armor, and the Patriots can be exploited by a sharp passing game.
Indianapolis made sure it controlled its playoff destiny by beating the Jaguars on Sunday. Now it must take the final two steps without slipping off the tightrope.