As the Indianapolis Colts head into their final matchup of the season, the playoffs loom large. While the Colts won't overlook their game against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars, the playoffs are the real focus.
Of course, with their seeding still in flux, the Colts will certainly be going all out to win this game. With a win and a loss by the Cincinnati Bengals and/or New England Patriots, the Colts can move up from the No. 4 seed. The likelihood of that happening is limited, but certainly possible.
But the Colts won't, and shouldn't, sacrifice health for such a win. The bottom line is that the Colts have gone all-in on a playoff run this season, and that should be the focus of the regular-season finale.
The Jaguars, on the other hand, have no playoff seed to play for and strategically are probably better off losing this game in order to look for a better draft slot. But head coach Gus Bradley isn't that kind of coach, and will have the Jaguars as ready as ever for this one.
The Jaguars would love to cap a promising second half of the season with a win in Indianapolis, and the Colts would love to complete their sweep of the AFC South. So what needs to happen in order for Indianapolis to spoil Jacksonville's Christmas, yet keep theirs? Find out in this week's game plan.
Offense: Open it Up Early, Shut it Down Early
The Colts have gotten out to good starts over the last two weeks, putting together a 20-3 halftime lead against the Houston Texans in Week 15 and a 23-7 lead by the fourth quarter at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 16.
They achieved the leads by opening the offense up early, allowing Andrew Luck to throw the ball and get into a rhythm. Not only did they allow Luck to throw the ball, but they allowed him to go downfield a little more and used a few more routes in the intermediate range (5-15 yards).
|Colts' First-Half Offense|
|Week||Passes||Runs||Points||Yards/Play||First Downs||1st Down Pass %||1st Down Run %|
|Week 1-14 Average||20.8||13.5||9.08||4.83||8.09||60.1||39.3|
|Pro-Football-Reference.com and Kyle J. Rodriguez|
The difference isn't huge, but by mixing in a few more passes and relying on a struggling run game a little less, the Colts put the ball in the hands of their best player, Luck. While Luck has struggled at times this season, he's looked good over the last three weeks with improved protection and a better chemistry with his young receivers.
Against the Jaguars, the Colts can put them away early by spreading the field and being aggressive.
Once they do that, the Colts need to take care of their playmakers and get them off the field. Far too many times this season the Colts have left Andrew Luck in the game deep into the fourth quarter of a blowout (either with the Colts ahead or behind), rather than utilizing Matt Hasselbeck, who is a $3.5 million cap hit this season.
If the Colts are going to go into chew-the-clock mode by handing off to Trent Richardson on every play (which they have in the last two weeks), then they need to put Hasselbeck in the game rather than risk an injury to Luck.
Defense: Ease Injured Players Back Into the Rotation
There are several key Colts getting healthy this week, namely defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois and cornerback Greg Toler.
Toler has been out since Week 7 with a groin injury, which was complicated by a hernia, but returned to game action last week. However, he only played seven snaps in the win over Kansas City, as Josh Gordy filled his role on the outside and Darius Butler took on a full-time starting role.
Jean Francois has been out since Week 13 with a plantar fascia tear, but may return in the Colts' Week 17 game against the Jaguars. In his place has been Fili Moala, who offers a bit more in pass rush but isn't as strong against the run.
For both players, the biggest challenge will be fitting them into the rotation while also keeping them healthy and respecting the strong play of the players who replaced them.
|Colts Defense With/Without Greg Toler|
|Points/Game||DVOA/Game||Yards/Game||TO/Game||3rd Down %|
|Football Outsiders and Pro-Football-Reference.com|
Gordy and Cassius Vaughn have played well in Toler's stead, but Toler is a better fit for the man coverage scheme that the Colts want to run. But Toler's groin injury is one that the Colts certainly don't want to re-aggravate, especially in a less important finale against the Jaguars. Toler needs to get used to a full load on the outside again, but the Colts shouldn't rush him back to that role.
By liberally using the backups who have played well enough in his stead, the Colts can gradually increase Toler's load. He should get more than seven snaps this week, but a full load probably isn't necessary.
On the defensive line, Jean Francois should get back in the rotation, but the Colts can't ignore what Moala brings to the table either. Jean Francois had two strong pass-rush games, but had just five quarterback pressures in his eight other games. Moala has been a bit more consistent, with 22 total pressures this season, with at least one pressure in all but two games (in what has largely been a reserve role).
While Jean Francois is probably a better player overall, Moala has a place in the rotation that can't be ignored, and Jean Francois' return shouldn't overshadow that.