Few people would have expected playoff implications in a midseason showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and the Miami Dolphins, but there's no denying them now. The winner of this game heads into the second half 5-3 and fully in the race.
Here are five pivotal factors for the 1 p.m. game Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium:
The Dolphins have picked off eight passes, and three of their four starting defensive backs have two picks (Chris Clemons, Reshad Jones, Sean Smith) apiece. If there's one area where Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck can be accused of recklessness, it's in trying to force passes where windows are small or essentially closed. Miami's secondary is capable of exploiting that. On the other hand, the Dolphins have to worry about covering Reggie Wayne, now the NFL's leader in receiving yards.
Luck could end up feeling some heat from the Dolphins for two reasons: 1. Miami ranks third in the NFL in rushing defense, so it could shut down the recently effective Colts running game. 2. If the Colts are forced to pass more often, the Dolphins bring the NFL's fourth-leading sacker in Cameron Wake. Protection has seemed to be more of an issue on the road than at home, but Miami's aggressive defense will cause some disruptions.
Special teams alert
In the Dolphins most recent win over the Jets, they blocked a punt, blocked a field goal and had a kickoff return touchdown. This could be a dangerous area for the Colts, considering they have shown vulnerability in the kicking game at times this season. On the flip side, the Colts have yet to find their stride in kickoff or punt returns or establish a go-to player at those spots. There has been too much hesitation on punt returns on whether to fair catch the ball, let it drop or catch and return.
If Robert Mathis returns to the Colts defense at outside linebacker – and he said this week he believes he can play – that will boost the Colts' ability to put pressure on the quarterback, whether it's Ryan Tannehill or Matt Moore. Mathis' presence not only helps his longtime running mate Dwight Freeney but has a positive effect on Cory Redding and the interior line as well. The Dolphins' passing game has been so-so most of the season. A little pressure could go a long ways. The Colts must also find a way to slow Reggie Bush, who's always a threat to break a long run.
The Colts defense as played well at times but one area where it is sorely lacking is in takeaways. Indianapolis has only two interceptions this season (Jerrell Freeman's pick-six vs. the Bears and Jerraud Powers' momentum-shifting pick vs. the Packers). That's horribly low. What's the reason? Colts could Bruce Arians suggests those takeaways, whether interceptions, forced fumbles or the old favorite sack/strip, come in bunches. If they can get one, it could turn on the takeaway faucet. The secondary will be without injured former Dolphin Vontae Davis again. Tom Zbikowski has been playing more consistently and Powers is due for a good game after being picked on the last couple weeks.