INDIANAPOLIS – This is new territory for the new-era Indianapolis Colts, a game with playoff implications.
Sure, NFL coaches and players will say every game has playoff implications, and they're right. A win or loss in September can come back to benefit or haunt a team in January. But that's theoretical at the time. Few people outside the Colts locker room thought the Jacksonville game was big, even if it could turn out that way.
The Colts vs. the Miami Dolphins on Sunday is the real deal. Two 4-3 teams. One of them heading into the midway turning point with five wins, legitimately on pace for 10 wins. Ten wins ought to get a team in the playoffs, especially in this year's AFC mess.
So this is new territory for the Andrew Luck-led Colts. It's the first time everyone knows it's a big game.
“It's no time to let up and start patting yourself on the back,” Luck said. “We haven't accomplished much in the grand scheme of things. We just have to focus on the next one, Miami, and give it 100 percent focus and concentration.”
It's debatable whether 100 percent will be enough.
This is a Miami team that is two overtime losses away from being 6-1. It's a team with a stout defense, particularly against the run. It's a team with a coach, Joe Philbin, who is as no-nonsense as he is inspirational.
Like the Colts, the Dolphins have a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), although he could be limited by injury and replaced by the underrated, productive Matt Moore.
The Dolphins are explosive in special teams and have a big-play back in the revitalized Reggie Bush. Cameron Wake ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks. He'll have Luck on his mind.
“Defensively, they're No.1 in the leage in third down, No.2 in the red zone, No.5 in scoring defense,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “They're great in situational football statistics. Yards don't matter much. They're top-notch in red zone and scoring defense and very good against the run. They're going to present a great challenge.”
The Colts will be relatively healthy entering the game, but will be without two starters in cornerback Vontae Davis and tight end Coby Fleener.
The question is how the Colts will respond to the new role as playoff contenders.
“We've been saying since Day 1 that we believe we have the talent to get things done,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “We had T-shirts made with the No.32 power ranking. Miami might have been No.31. It's all about what the guys in the locker room believe. Guys have talent and they believe in each other. We just have to go out and play well enough to win games.”
The Colts' running game staged a bit of a coming-out party at Tennessee, rushing for 171 yards and keying the overtime game-winning drive behind the strong return of Donald Brown.
Some of that strength could be attributed to the fact the offensive line was intact for the second consecutive game, a rarity this season. The team will have guard Joe Reitz back in action this week. Brown has also been complemented by the emergence of rookie Vick “The Flippin' Leaper” Ballard and Delone Carter.
The Colts were sold enough on the trio of Brown, Ballard and Carter, they cut loose Mewelde Moore this week. But Miami ranks third in rushing yardage allowed so it will be a tough task.
“Every team we play is going to be good up front,” Brown said. “We have to stay consistent and confident in what we're doing.”
Defensively, the Colts should have Robert Mathis back at outside linebacker, which should help the pass rush. Mathis “makes everyone better,” Arians said.
The Colts will have to deal with Bush, who has proved this season that he is capable of carrying the No.1 back load.
“Reggie's a home-run hitter and we can't allow home runs,” Arians said. “We can give up a single or two, but no home runs.”
Coming off a 19-13 win at Tennessee, the Colts defense has a solid outing to build upon. They've also received more play from linebacker Pat Angerer, who has returned from a fractured foot. Having Angerer and Mathis on the field together increases the level of intensity. Combined with Cory Redding, it could be as heightened in energy as anytime this season. Playing at home is a big help, too.
The Colts refuse to look ahead, but if they could win this game at home, then gain some revenge in next Thursday night's game at Jacksonville, they could be 6-3 entering a fascinating road trip to New England.
“This is our biggest game to date,” Luck said. “That's how we'll approach it.”
The task for the Colts, who no longer look like a No.32 team in any respect, is to keep making each week's game bigger.