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Colts Path to Playoffs Goes Through Jacksonville

The Indianapolis Colts have their season on the line Sunday. After a disappointing 23-20 home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, Indianapolis’ path to the playoffs hinges on a Week 18 win. In the way stands the Jacksonville Jaguars, losers of eight straight, including a most recent 40 point massacre at the hands of the New England Patriots.

Jacksonville has been mostly disappointing, receiving little help from the lackluster play of 2021 number one pick QB Trevor Lawrence. On the season, the Jags are an unsightly 2-14. They probably even have more to gain from losing the game and beating the 2-13-1 Lions out to secure the first overall pick in consecutive seasons. Still, history doesn’t appear to favor Indianapolis in this situation.

The Colts’ ticket to the playoffs will have to be punched on the road. A 2-14 opponent with an interim coach mopping up Urban Meyer’s mess may appear inviting enough, but Indianapolis hasn’t won in Jacksonville since 2014. In that game, a third year Andrew Luck threw four of his 40 touchdowns on the season.

Carson Wentz isn’t Andrew Luck. That much is clear. Nevertheless, the gunslinger sixth year QB has enjoyed a largely successful comeback season. Wentz lost his job with the Philadelphia Eagles after poor play last season. He then followed former head coach Frank Reich to Indianapolis in a swap that sent the Eagles a first round pick. With 26 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, a 95.8 quarterback rating and a 9-7 record, the Colts would make that trade again in a heartbeat.

Despite the inconsistent play, an evident problem in Sunday’s loss to Las Vegas, Wentz seems to finally provide the Colts some measure of stability at the position. This must come as a relief for Reich, who’s now coached a revolving door of four quarterbacks in his first four seasons with the team. Wentz may not be among the elite options at the position, but he’s shown this season that he can be good enough to put the Colts in positions to win.

Perhaps we can excuse Wentz hardly managing to complete a pass in the first half against the Raiders. After all, he did miss practice all week as he recovered from COVID-19. In fact, he was only cleared Sunday morning after the NFL revised the health and safety protocols earlier this week to allow for a faster return to play.

The thing is the Colts don’t really need Wentz to be Andrew Luck, or any other elite QB for that matter. The rest of the roster is strong enough to win. It ought to be criminal to make it this deep into any Colts discussion without mention MVP candidate running back Jonathon Taylor. The second year back out of Wisconsin has built upon late 2020 gains and never looked back.

Taylor’s 1,734 rushing yards, 20 touchdowns and 5.5 yards per carry all place him atop the leaderboard at the position. Taylor runs behind a talented, and impressively deep offensive line. This protection, along with his ridiculous combination of power and speed as a ball carrier, has vaulted Taylor to the forefront of the conversation on being the very best running back in football.

The defensive side of the ball has been strong for the Colts as well. Pro Bowlers Darius Leonard (LB), DeForest Buckner (DT) and Kenny Moore II (CB) headline a defense tied for the NFL lead with 33 takeaways. Injuries and fatigue showed against Las Vegas, but the Indianapolis defense has the talent to compete with any other unit in the league. Colts defenders will have to keep Lawrence and the Jags in check to secure a spot in the playoffs.

So what are the keys to victory for Indianapolis in week 18?

  • Run early and often – Taylor is a beast, plain and simple. Hand him the ball and let him go to work. From there, the play action game can open up for Wentz, who can complete easier passes with the defense bearing down on Taylor.
  • Force turnovers – Keys to victory don’t have to be complicated. The Colts have thrived on turnovers all year and Lawrence looks ready to provide some. The rookie Jaguars QB has 7 picks in his last three games and a league-high 17 on the year.
  • Pass protection – The Colts have had to mix and match lineups on the offensive line all year. The deep group has performed valiantly overall, but the pass protection has been spotty at times. Particularly from the left tackle position. A little bit of pressure goes a long way in disrupting Wentz’s timing and footwork in the pocket. Even with an offensive game plan centered on running the ball, allowing sacks or turnovers from pressure won’t bode well.

If the Colts are able to take care of business in Jacksonville, seeding could place them anywhere from the 5 to the 7. In fact, Indianapolis could even squeak in the playoffs with a loss in Jacksonville and a Chargers loss plus a Steelers loss and Dolphins win. Obviously beating a 2 win Jacksonville team seems a lot less complicated.

Indianapolis has the talent to beat anybody in the league. We’ve seen it in recent statement wins over the Cardinals and the Patriots. But they do also have a tendency to lay some eggs. We saw it in the 1-4 start that landed them in this predicament in the first place. We saw it again against Las Vegas last weekend, something sure to be much more concerning to Frank Reich and the Colts staff. Indianapolis, appears poised to head to the Wild Card round of the playoffs, but don’t put anything past them and their wild card of a quarterback.

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