Since the beginning of the season, challenges have mounted against the Colts.
Star running back Jonathan Taylor missed the first four games on the Physically Unable to Perform list, rehabbing his surgically repaired ankle amid a contract standoff that became a public drama. Rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, the No. 4 overall pick, was lost for the year after just four games due to shoulder surgery (he played just one complete game). Standout nose tackle Grover Stewart, one of the NFL’s best run defenders, has been serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances (he’s not eligible to return to the active roster until Dec. 4). Second-round rookie JuJu Brents, one of Indianapolis’ top cornerbacks in a young and inexperienced room, has missed three straight games with a quad injury.
And on Tuesday, the Colts waived three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard. A second-round pick in 2018 out of South Carolina State, Leonard was a linchpin of the Indianapolis defense during his first four seasons, but injuries have limited his playing time and effectiveness the past two years.
The Colts weren’t expected to be competitive in the AFC this season before the personnel issues.
Yet here they are, with those issues, in the thick of the playoff race heading into Week 12.
“Everything is in front of us,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said Nov. 12.
At 5-5 coming out of their bye week, the Colts are just two spots outside of the playoffs as the ninth seed in the AFC. The divisional-rival Texans and Steelers currently hold the last two wild-card spots, respectively, at 6-4, just one game ahead of the Colts. Buffalo (6-5), the eighth seed, sits just one-half game ahead of Indianapolis.
The Colts’ remaining schedule should provide even more reason for optimism. Their final seven opponents — Tampa Bay (4-6), Tennessee (3-7), Cincinnati (5-5), Pittsburgh (6-4), Atlanta (4-6), Las Vegas (5-6), Houston (6-4) — have a combined 33-38 record, a.464 winning record. Keep in mind the Bengals just lost quarterback Joe Burrow for the season, too.
Indianapolis securing a head-to-head win over the Steelers plus sweeping the season series with the Texans — the Colts won the first matchup in Week 2 — could have major implications for AFC playoff seeding.
“There’s a few [teams] that have a couple more wins than others, but there is a lot of parity,” coach Shane Steichen said Monday of the AFC. “To be in the race with seven games left is huge for our football team, but we got to take it one week at a time and go out and execute and win this week. That’s what we care about.
“The biggest thing for us is to control what we can control is what I told the team,” he continued. “Let’s be 1-0 each week and not think about the future. Let’s focus on Tampa Bay and then we’ll worry about the next one when it comes.”
Indianapolis has won with both sides of the ball getting hot.
In the current two-game winning streak, which snapped a three-game skid, it’s been the defense carrying the team. Cornerback Kenny Moore II set a single-game franchise record with two pick-sixes in Indianapolis’ victory at Carolina in Week 9. Before the bye, the Colts sacked Mac Jones five times en route to a victory over the Patriots in Germany.
The challenge for the Colts is getting everything to click down the stretch. Gardner Minshew has struggled in replacing Richardson — he has completed 63.7% of his passes for 1,721 yards and eight touchdowns with six interceptions in 10 appearances, including six starts — but Indianapolis is a threat offensively when its rushing attack is in rhythm. And it’s been held under 80 yards in back-to-back games. More offensive line continuity could help. The starting five of Bernhard Raimann, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Will Fries and Braden Smithhave played just one full game together.
“I think if we’re all clicking on all three cylinders — offense, defense and special teams — it can be pretty special these last seven weeks,” Steichen said.
The team’s resilience provides hope for that goal.
Steichen’s leadership has brought confidence to a team that found itself in a nightmare last season, when coach Frank Reich was fired midseason and finished the year 4-12-1.
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Despite Richardson missing most of this season, health issues on the offensive line, a banged-up tight end room (Jelani Woods hasn’t played all season; Drew Ogletree was sidelined the last game) and a hurting Josh Downs (the standout rookie receiver has been playing through a knee injury all season), the Colts have the league’s ninth-best scoring offense (24.3 points/game).
Indianapolis has put up at least 20 points in all but one game this season.
“I think he really pushes everybody to be their best,” defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo said of Steichen. “He expects the best. He expects high-level performances, and I don’t think he’ll accept anything less. I think that kind of resonates with the players. I think he has full faith in every player, and he shows that. It gives everybody confidence in our own abilities and confidence in each other. I think his attitude and his approach has definitely helped us get through adversity.”
Now, the Colts are a team with a fighting chance.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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