Dolphins vs. Colts Take 2: Indianapolis Grabs Wild Card Pole Position

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Dolphins vs. Colts Take 2: Indianapolis Grabs Wild Card Pole Position
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Reggie Wayne was born with two feet in bounds.

Week after week, the Indianapolis Colts continue to be the surprise of the NFL.

In the wake of their 23-20 win over the visiting Dolphins, they now sit 5-3 and on top of the AFC wild-card heap.

A second look at the tape reveals another stunning performance by Andrew Luck and company.

 

The Real Story

The defensive formula in football from time immemorial has been to put a team in 3rd-and-long in order to force sacks and turnovers from the offense.

Luck broke the recipe against the Dolphins.

For as much as Bruce Arians has been criticized for not providing check-down options for his rookie quarterback, the plan paid off in spades against the Dolphins.

Repeatedly faced with 3rd-and-impossible situations, Luck made quick work of them helping the Colts rip off 13 first downs in 19 opportunities.

Even on what are normally considered "give up" downs, Luck kept his eyes deep downfield, sustaining drives with rifle throws that tore through the Dolphins secondary.

There's a reason Luck got all the attention against Miami.

He deserved it.

He navigated the pocket, made difficult throws and kept the Indy offense clicking all afternoon. Given the way the Colts moved the ball, 23 points was on the low end of what they could have produced. Two missed field goals and a raft of penalties held down the final tally.

The scary part for the rest of the NFL is that despite his brilliance, there was still room for visible improvement by Luck. In his zeal to make long throws and because of his justified confidence in his own ability to not get sacked, he still holds the ball too long at times. He wasn't always satisfied to take enough yardage for field goal tries and remained focused on long first down throws to double covered receivers.

Such quibbles are petty after a performance like he gave this week, however. His play was strictly brilliant.

Of course it wasn't all about Luck. His teammates did give him plenty of help. Indianapolis blocked better than they have all season. His receivers made several tough catches. The defense rebounded after a rocky start.

In the end, however, this isn't a game the Colts win without next-level heroics from their quarterback who looks like he has, in fact, hit that next tier in the development of his play.

 

Heroes

Aside from Luck, Indianapolis can line boast of several impressive performances.

Reggie Wayne was his typical self, picking up seven catches, 78 yards and a score.

The oft-maligned Donnie Avery hauled in five catches for 108 yards before leaving the game with an injury.

T.Y. Hilton made up for an egregious drop late in the first half with an equally impress touchdown in the third quarter. He had the second 100-yard game of his career.

Vick Ballard struggled most of the day in the run game, but did make several key catches and had a memorable driving run to seal the game with less than a minute to play.

Dwight Freeney had a fantastic game, but more on him in a moment.

 

Goats

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky did a great job fixing what ailed the Indy defense, but there were serious schematic issues early. Let's just say that any time Robert Mathis is dropping into coverage on Reggie Bush on a third down, someone has failed the idiot test for the day. Having said that, Indianapolis allowed just two second-half field goals.

Pat Angerer, Jerraud Powers and Cassius Vaughn all had major coverage flaws early in the game as the 'Fins piled up 17 points on their first three possessions alone.

 

Secret Play

Sometimes a good play doesn't turn out the way a team wants but still ripples through the rest of the game.

With 9:30 to play in the first half, Dwight Freeney burst around the left side of the Miami line and visciously ripped the arm of Ryan Tannehill.

The ball flew free, right into the arms of Jake Long who ran the ball forward eight yards. The result was a two-yard gain for the Dolphins.

They went on to score a touchdown. That one play was a potential 10-point swing in favor of Miami, but while they won the battle, they lost the war.

Miami did score a touchdown that drive, but something changed in the way Tannehill played.

Before the fumble, he was 6-of-7 for 112 yards (16.0 YPA). After the fumble, he was 16-of-31 for 178 yards (5.7 YPA). The Dolphins started rolling him out more and rarely let him sit back in the pocket to throw.

The Freeney play looked like an unfortunate break against Indianapolis, but in actuality it set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

 

Coaching Notes

Obviously, no coaching note is bigger than Chuck Pagano's speech. That speaks for itself.

Bruce Arians continued his pattern of conservative coaching, opting for a field goal attempt on 4th-and-1 on the opening drive. Statistically it was a terrible choice and ultimately backfired. A penalty and a missed kick cost the Colts the chance to get on the board first.

With 12 seconds to play in the first half, Arians opted for a field goal with the ball on the 29-yard line. The kick was good, but there was time to run another play for the end zone. Arians gets a pass on this because of the issues the Colts had on a deep ball the week before against the Titans. Still, aggression there is preferred.

With under four minutes to play, Arians elected to run twice with the Colts clinging to a three-point lead. To his credit, he called a third-down pass, but passing on the first two downs would have likely resulted in something better than what Indianapolis ultimately got.

 

Keep an Eye On...

The Colts are still stuck on three forced turnovers for the season. That has to change eventually.

Indy faces Jacksonville on Thursday, and it marks the first time Luck will face the same defense for a second time. It will be fascinating to see how he responds.

Indianapolis accomplished what it had to in beating the Dolphins. In doing so, they likely ensure that nine wins will be enough for them to make the playoffs. Miami would have to go 6-2 down the stretch to vault the Colts in that scenario.

The Jaguars' home-field advantage will be multiplied by virtue of the short week, so it won't be an easy game for the Colts. If they do win to run their record to 6-3 they'll likely need to win only three more games to make the post season.

With Tennessee and Buffalo at home, the Chiefs on the road and the Texans in a year-end game still left on the schedule, it's easy to see a clear path to January.

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