INDIANAPOLIS – Bruce Arians might sew up NFL Coach of the Year if he leads the Indianapolis Colts to a win in Detroit. It'll take that kind of performance.
Forget the Lions' 4-7 record. Put aside the controversy that surrounds the menace-to-polite-society Ndamukong Suh. Take away, for a moment, the feel-good nature of interim coach Arians and the Colts' “ChuckStrong” commitment to winning for recovering coach Chuck Pagano.
Look, instead, at the players and their skills.
The Lions are loaded. They have the best receiver in the game in Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and anyone who says otherwise is simply being contrarian. They have a gunslinger in quarterback Matthew Stafford and he has several other targets, too.
On defense, Suh gets the ink but the Lions have a pass rush and front line that is “big, strong, active and deep,” in Arians' words.
There's also this: The Colts haven't beat a good team on the road yet. They were even destroyed by a lousy one in the Jets. And the Andrew Luck who wows them at home often becomes another harried, erratic rookie on the road.
So, yes, Arians will have to have his best coaching game, and the Colts will have to have their best road performance, to win this one.
The good thing is it's not a do-or-die situation. Losing to the Lions won't derail the Colts' drive for the playoffs. But beating them would be far bigger than knocking off the average below-.500 team on the road.
“They have a lot of talent on that team, both offensively and defensively,” said Colts safety Antoine Bethea, one of the average-sized humans who must defend Megatron. “We just have to go out there and play.”
Sounds simple. It's not.
Short of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis having their best games of the season in harassing Stafford, and Colts fans would welcome that, I don't see how the Colts slow down Stafford-to-Johnson. Johnson leads the league in receiving yardage and has a chance to break Jerry Rice's regular-season record. It's common sense, really. If a pass goes high to the 6-foot-5 Johnson and his 42-inch vertical leap, the 6-foot defensive backs are helpless.
Among the many reasons I couldn't be an offensive coordinator in the NFL is the fact I'd call that pass to Johnson about 30 times a game.
“I think the most important thing is to slow him down at the line of scrimmage, not really let him get a full head of steam running down the field,” Bethea said. “Other than that, just play physical.”
Sounds simple. It's not.
Johnson has dealt with double teams and unique coverages and about everything that can possibly be thrown at a receiver. He still thrives.
Colts backup quarterback Drew Stanton, who has two touchdown pass to Johnson from his time with the Lions, says Johnson studies the game as well, is driven to improve and has developed from a one-dimensional receiver as a rookie to one of the most complete players in the game.
In other words, he's getting better and the Colts secondary has one starter (Bethea) who has any sort of long-term track record of success in the league. Tom Zbikowski has experience, but he's out with injury. Vontae Davis is coming back from injury, so he won't likely be sharp. The other defensive backs are still developing.
“When you've got two guys with the quality of Matthew and Calvin, they are as good as it gets in this league,” Arians said. “…don't get your heart broken if two guys are on (Johnson) and he still catches the ball, just play the next down.”
Suppose the Colts limit Johnson somehow (i.e., hold him to six or seven catches, 80 yards).
There's still the problem of the Colts offense dealing with a formidable pass rush and the recent history of Luck committing turnovers on the road. Some of those interceptions aren't Luck's fault. Too many factors go into each one.
But the Lions will bring the heat, and the edge of a team in desperation mode. It's not only Suh who causes grief for quarterbacks, it's Cliff Avril, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
This hasn't been a great season for the Lions. But they have some great parts.
Luck knows the scoop, of course.
“Turnovers kill you,” he said. “I know that's sort of been our Achilles' heel on the road, committing turnovers. We'll have to stay away from those if we want a chance to win.”
Here's where Arians comes in, particularly as a coordinator. He jokes (sort of) that he has a half-dozen or more big-play passes in his game plan each week and doesn't want them going unused.
The trick on the road is to put Luck and the offense in position to move the ball without too many high-risk plays. They need to score touchdowns over field goals and, if there's any way possible, to play with a lead. Some of Luck's issues on the road have come under the scenario where the team has to go pass-heavy and the opponent has a lead and can gamble with pressure and aggressive coverage.
The good news is Luck has learned what works and doesn't over the course of the season. He's soaking everything in. He'll continue to get better in handling road games.
The Colts will likely need some unexpected plays outside the offense – another couple big T.Y. Hilton returns would be nice – to supplement the scoring.
Detroit would appear to be better than its record shows, but here's a final promising note for the Colts: There's a reason why the Lions are 4-7. It won't be easy to reveal that, but if the Colts do, they'll have their most significant win yet, and Arians will have Pagano smiling again.