Surging Colts battling for final playoff slot
A 1-5 start to the season that included a four-game losing appeared to doom the Indianapolis Colts' hopes of reaching the postseason.
Yet, with two games remaining, the Colts (8-6) are in a three-way tie with Baltimore and Tennessee for the second wild-card berth in the AFC. The Ravens hold the tiebreaker, but if Baltimore or division rival Pittsburgh loses once, the door is open for Indianapolis to qualify for the playoffs by winning its last two games.
The Colts have won seven of eight heading into Sunday's matchup against the visiting New York Giants. Indianapolis is coming off its two most impressive victories, blanking Dallas 23-0 on Sunday to snap the Cowboys' five-game winning streak after halting Houston's nine-game run the previous week with a 24-21 road win.
Head coach Frank Reich reiterated that the weekly focus with players hasn't changed from when the Colts started 1-5 and lost games they were in position to win. That makes preparation strictly routine for the game against the Giants, who lost 17-0 at home to the Titans on Sunday.
"I feel like sometimes this is boring, like I am going to get boring saying the same things," Reich said of repeating the continual message to players. "Sometimes you try to find creative ways to say the same thing. But the good thing is we've got smart players and they see it is working and it is a credit to them. So whether we win or lose -- no matter the results, we are moving on.
"I think some of that is forged when you are losing because I think what happens is when you lose a game, they expect you are just going to hammer and hammer them, but we have taken the same approach. We treat them the same way. We grade the film and correct it the same way, same tone. Win or lose, we are just getting ready for the next opponent."
Indianapolis held the NFL's leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, to 87 yards on 18 carries in last week's win, but now it must contend with one of the league's top rookies in Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
The No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, Barkley ranks third in the league with 1,155 rushing yards. He's also an exceptional pass catcher with 82 receptions for 654 yards. Barkley has scored 13 touchdowns -- nine rushing and four receiving.
"He's a different runner, a different runner than the guy we played last week, but dynamic," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said of Barkley. "This guy here is dynamic, his cutting ability, his strength, his contact balance.
"You start naming the things you want from a No. 1 running back from the guys that have been the greats in the NFL in history and this guy has it -- vision, explosiveness, being able to catch the ball out of the backfield."
One player who will be motivated to stop Barkley is Indianapolis rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. A second-round pick out of South Carolina State, Leonard admitted he was irked after he was bypassed in the Pro Bowl voting despite leading the league in tackles.
"A whole lot. A whole lot more," said Leonard when asked how high his anger was over the snub. "It's up here. Just knowing that I put everything on film and still not enough. Just got to keep improving."
There also is plenty of frustration on the opposing sideline. With New York officially eliminated from postseason contention following the lackluster loss to the Titans, head coach Pat Shurmur has been dealing with questions of whether he plans to shut down ailing wideout Odell Beckham Jr.
"That question leads into that these two games aren't important, and I don't believe that," said Shurmur. "I think what's important is that we as a team do everything we can to go out there and play the game and try to win the game."
Beckham has missed the past two games due to a quadriceps injury and did not practice Wednesday, so he may not be available Sunday. No matter Beckham's status, Giants quarterback Eli Manning said the won-loss record should have no bearing on playing to win.
"We're football players and this is what we do," said Manning. "We play football, that's our passion, that's our job, and we're going to go out there and do it well and be able to celebrate some wins."
New York will have to slow the connection of quarterback Andrew Luck and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Luck is second in the NFL with 34 touchdown passes and six of them have gone to Hilton, who has 67 receptions for 1,071 yards.
Updated December 19, 2018