INDIANAPOLIS -- The first step, the one they envisioned last spring when they signed a veteran quarterback and traded for one of the top young interior defensive linemen in the NFL, has happened.
The Indianapolis Colts are back in the playoffs 16-plus months after the franchise was shocked by the retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck. They became a team the league had to take seriously after after wins over playoff-bound teams Green Bay and Tennessee.
But after two subpar performances in the final two weeks -- when they squandered a 17-point second half lead at Pittsburgh and needed Jonathan Taylor to put together a franchise-record rushing performance to hold off the Jacksonville Jaguars -- you can basically grab a coin out of your pocket and toss it in the air and guess which Colts team will show at Buffalo Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
It could be the team that was rolling in all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams -- or it could be the team that sputtered at times.
“We won 11 football games this year,” Colts quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We started off 0-1 and won 11 of the next 15. That’s a heck of a year when you win 11. A lot of teams are going home today. And it’s awesome and we’re fired up to be in.”
The room for error is minimal for the Colts now. They’ve gone from being a scary team to having to face one of the hottest teams in the league and the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC.
The Bills have a MVP candidate in quarterback Josh Allen and enter the playoffs having won nine of their last 10 games. And it’s not like the Bills have strictly beaten up on teams that will be picking in the top 10 of the April draft.
The Bills beat Pittsburgh, put up 44 points against Seattle and dropped 56 points on Miami on Sunday. All three of those teams won at least 10 games this season.
That means the Colts defense can’t have lapses, as they did in the final two weeks of the regular season, because at some point there will be too much breaking instead of bending. They’re not heading into the playoffs as the same dominant unit statistically as they were earlier in the season.
They've allowed 296.9 passing yards a game since Week 11. which ranks 31st in the NFL. The 385.7 total yards allowed a game is 24th in the league in that same time span.
Saturday will be about putting together a complete effort.
“In some ways, we’ve been consistent enough [to win] 11 times and we haven’t been five times,” coach Frank Reich said. “At this next level, there’s no room for some of the inconsistencies that we’ve shown. Even in the last two weeks, like you’re suggesting, where we come out and we’re hot in the first half and the inconsistency [starts] in the second half. We know that has to be addressed. We have to be better going on the road playing playoff football against really good teams.”
Reich quickly noted a solid running game travels on the road. And that’s what the Colts have, led by Taylor. A consistent running game has the potential to keep Allen and the Bills offense on the sideline waiting for their time to get back on the field.
Taylor rushed for 741 yards in the final six games, including a franchise-record 253 yards against the Jaguars on Sunday.
“A good running game, to be able to mix it up and get shot plays in the pass game with play-action, be able to play good defense, which starts with stopping the run, then be great in special teams,” Reich said. “That’s a formula that I think we can carry on the road.”
The opening betting line has the Colts as a touchdown underdog. Reich knows firsthand what it’s like to be that role -- as a player at the University of Maryland and throughout his NFL career. He wasn’t even the first choice to be the coach in Indianapolis.
“I'd rather be the one seed,” Reich said. “But I do feel good about our team. The pressure is not on us. We should be loose, we should be aggressive, we should be freed up to play our best game of the year against a really good football team. In reality, no one is going to give us a chance. It’s 'us vs. the world' mentality and that’s all you need."