INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts weren’t supposed to be here, playing a prime-time game in Week 18 with a chance to make the playoffs.
Not with a rookie quarterback who then suffered a season-ending injury that forced Indy (9-7) to rely on a veteran backup for its final 12 games. Not with an inconsistent running game or a first-time head coach. And certainly not with a defense allowing 24.5 points per game.
Yet this gritty bunch is here, one win away from reaching the postseason for the first time since 2020, completing a mission perhaps only they believed possible and, yes, proving the critics wrong. They can’t wait.
“One thing I’ve learned is how scrappy, how tough this team is,” 2021 NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor said after Sunday’s 23-20 win over Las Vegas. “We knew we had tough players, but it’s a different story when you say you have a tough team.”
Taylor is one of many Indy players who have overcome obstacles.
He opened training camp and the regular season on the physically-unable-to-perform list with an ankle injury, forcing him to miss Indy’s first four games. Thumb surgery kept him out of three late-season contests. Now, he appears to be rounding into form.
Quarterback Gardner Minshew struggled with turnovers during a three-game losing streak after replacing the injured Anthony Richardson in Week 5. He rebounded by leading the Colts (9-7) to four straight wins before alternating wins and losses over the past four weeks to forge a three-way tie with Houston and Jacksonville atop the AFC South.
If Minshew extends his career-best single-season victory total to eight Saturday night against the Texans, Indy will be playoff bound. With a win and a Jaguars loss Sunday at Tennessee, the Colts would claim their first division crown since 2014.
“In this league, everybody’s got a chance,” Minshew said. “There’s a lot of parity, and then I think even when you’re struggling a little bit there at 3-5, I think everybody pulled together instead of growing apart. We were able to get us in this position. So, I think everybody is fired up for the opportunity.”
Now that they are here, the Colts don’t intend to fritter away this opportunity — playing at home, playing for the postseason and playing to prove they are every bit the playoff team they thought they could be.
“We know what’s at stake,” Steichen said. “It’s go out and take care of business. It’s win or go home.”
Run defense. After watching Las Vegas’ Zamir White run for 145 yards against Kansas City in Week 16, the Colts cut those numbers in half. He finished with 20 carries for 71 yards as the Raiders averaged 3.4 yards per carry.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Takeaways. Indy still ranks in the top half of the league, but after recording at least one turnover in 19 consecutive games, it has gone two weeks without one. The Colts must find a way to force turnovers against the Texans and dynamic rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.
Trey Sermon. While Taylor looks like he has fresh legs after missing so much time, Sermon has filled in nicely for injured RB Zack Moss. He had 17 carries for 88 yards in a win over Pittsburgh and had a 27-yard run to set up a late field goal against Las Vegas.
Pass defense. Raiders quarterback Aidan O’Connell tested the coverage early and often, going 30 of 47 for 299 yards with two TD passes one week after completing no passes in the final three quarters against Kansas City. All-Pro receiver Davante Adams did the heavy lifting, but the Colts’ young secondary, which had a pick-6 negated by a pass interference call, needs to find a quick fix before facing Stroud.
WR Michael Pittman Jr. (concussion protocol) and RT Braden Smith (knee) returned from injuries last weekend. The Colts are hoping CB Kenny Moore II (back) and Moss (right forearm) can play this week.
1 — Since producing double-digit win seasons in 12 of 13 years from 2002-14, Indy has only done it twice since — in 2018 and 2020. The Colts need one more win to hit that milestone and if they get it Saturday, Steichen will become the fifth straight non-interim, first-year coach to lead Indy to the playoffs.
What must the Colts do to beat the Texans? Re-establish home-field advantage against a team they have historically dominated, and do something that has proved tricky — replicate last week’s strong performance.