In what was their best game since a Week 7 win against the Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts beat up the Kansas City Chiefs en route to a 23-7 victory on Sunday. Most impressively for Indianapolis, the Colts managed to do so on the road in legendary Arrowhead Stadium.
The two teams may end up facing each other in the Wild Card Round in the playoffs, and while that game will likely be very different, the Colts showed their full potential in this one, as both the defense and offense played as well as they have throughout the entire second half of the season.
Most importantly for Indianapolis, the offense got going, opening up the playbook and taking shots down the field. While the Colts personnel isn't going to allow it to be an elite unit this season, putting the ball in Luck's hands is the best choice, and it's shown over the last few weeks.
With a big win under their belts, the Colts have finally given their fans some good reasons for optimism with just one week to go before the playoffs.
Really, the most important player on the Colts roster is Andrew Luck.
For the first few weeks after Reggie Wayne's injury, Luck was clearly off. With young, inexperienced wide receivers, a poor offensive line and a struggling offensive system, Luck's play suffered. But, over the last three weeks, Luck has picked things back up again.
In this one, Luck was dealing throughout the game, navigating the pocket well and finding open receivers. His progression was visibly better, and it helped that the offensive line gave him good protection for the third straight week. Luck got better as the game went on, and his play versus Alex Smith's was the biggest reason why Indianapolis controlled the game from start to finish.
If Indianapolis is going to make a postseason run, the second-year quarterback will be the key player. Luck getting into a rhythm prior to the postseason is a great sign.
Donald Brown is the best back on the Colts roster, and his biggest asset is his ability to break a big play. Against the Chiefs, he was at it again, scoring both of Indianapolis' touchdowns on the day.
The first was a 33-yard swing pass, as Brown took the checkdown pass and sped down the right sideline, using some subtle movement behind a Coby Fleener block to avoid defenders in the last 10 yards and get into the end zone.
The second was even more impressive, as Brown ran through three tackle attempts on the way to a 51-yard touchdown run. Brown burst through a hole off of the right guard on a draw and went down the right sideline again, using impressive strength and balance to stay in bounds in the final 10 yards.
Brown now has seven plays of 20 yards or more this season, the second most of any Indianapolis player (T.Y. Hilton, 11).
Richardson has been much-maligned this season, and for good reason. The second-year back is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry on the season and has not impressed in any capacity. He's had little burst, and his vision has been subpar to say the least.
Against the Chiefs, we saw some good things from Richardson, who saw defenders in the backfield often but always seemed to fall forward.
In particular, Richardson's run on 4th-and-1 in the first quarter showed improvement, as he cut hard and exploded through a hole for six yards. It was exactly the type of play fans been waiting to see all season.
Now, Richardson has plenty of room to grow. He still gained just 43 yards on 16 carries, a 2.7 yards-per-carry average. You can't blame the end-of-game, clock-killing runs as the reason behind his low average, either. Richardson gained 3.0 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and just 2.5 yards per carry for the rest of the game.
Richardson is still not a good back right now, and the trade has clearly backfired on Indianapolis, but a glimmer of hope from Richardson is better than nothing.
Doesn't have a lot to show for it but Richardson really running hard today.— Conrad Brunner (@1070Bruno) December 22, 2013
Colts wide receiver Griff Whalen was brought up to the active roster on October 28, was unimpressive and then waived on November 19.
But, last week, Whalen was brought back to the active roster and played well, finishing with four catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, as well as 67 punt return yards (including a 51-yarder). Whalen was even better against Kansas City, catching seven passes for 80 yards.
Whalen gives Luck a decent option as a possession receiver, as he has solid hands and runs good routes. As former college teammates, they have a chemistry on the field as well. Most impressively, and surprisingly, Whalen has shown decent tackle-breaking ability, gaining multiple first downs on Sunday after avoiding the initial tackler.
Without Wayne, the Colts needed somebody to fill that role, and Whalen may be, at the very least, a short-term answer.
The Colts continued to shuffle the offensive line on Sunday, with their seventh different starting lineup this year. Yet, for the third straight week, the line gave Luck good time throughout the game, a big part of his personal resurgence.
The interior line was Joe Reitz, Samson Satele and Jeff Linkenbach against the Bengals, not allowing a sack. It was then Reitz/Xavier Nixon, Mike McGlynn and Hugh Thornton against the Texans last week, allowing one sack. Against the Chiefs, Nixon, Satele and McGlynn only allowed one sack.
The constant? Tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus playing lights-out. While the run-blocking certainly could be better, the pass-blocking has been much improved and gives hope for the postseason.
The Chiefs got the ball first in the second half, down 13-7 and needing a momentum-changing drive.
Instead, they turned the ball over when Robert Mathis reached around the left tackle, knocking the ball out of Alex Smith's hand. The ball then was propelled forward by Smith's throwing motion and was caught by Jerrell Freeman.
While Freeman was credited with the interception, it should be credited to Mathis as a sack and fumble, as the ball came out long before Smith's arm started forward. It would give Mathis 17.5 sacks on the season and another game-changing strip-sack.
Regardless, the Colts got the turnover and put the game permanently out of reach on Donald Brown's 51-yard touchdown run. Mathis has consistently provided the Colts with big plays all season, and he is the heart and soul of the Colts defense.
The Colts secondary has had down moments throughout the season (getting picked apart by Kellen Clemens was probably the low point), but they've also had some incredible performances.
This game falls under the latter.
The secondary had tight coverage throughout the day, defending seven passes and intercepting Smith twice. Vontae Davis was especially good, defending two passes and putting together his second straight dominant performance. Josh Gordy also was surprisingly reliable in coverage, and Antoine Bethea was his best self (apart from a missed pass interference), buzzing around the field with big hits from the safety position.
Alex Smith finished with just 153 yards on 16-of-29 passing with two interceptions, a 41.3 passer rating.
It helped that the Colts actually had a pass rush, as they finished with four sacks and six quarterback hits.
Jerrell Freeman has been hailed as a Pro Bowler by Colts fans at times throughout his career. He's not, unfortunately, at least not until he can be more consistent.
But with games like Sunday, it's easy to see why his name has become well known in Indianapolis in such a quick time.
Freeman was everywhere Sunday, and although he finished with just five tackles, he added two interceptions, a forced fumble, a sack, three passes defensed and a quarterback hit. While one of those interceptions likely will be changed to a fumble recovery, it's still one heck of a stat line.
There are days where Freeman gets abused in coverage and spends too much time lost behind offensive linemen, but today was not one of those days. Today was a day to be thankful for Freeman, a diamond-in-the-rough find by Ryan Grigson, who always seems to be around the ball.