With their third straight double-digit win, the Indianapolis Colts are headed into the playoffs on a high note. After defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars 30-10 on Sunday, the Colts now look forward to a home game next weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The win over the Jaguars included an impressive start yet again for Indianapolis, which scored 17 points in the first quarter and never looked back. With impressive games from Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Robert Mathis, the Colts got contributions from their most important players in this one, a good sign heading into the postseason.
So what else can we learn from the Colts' Week 17 dominance? Find out in this week's takeaways.
For the entire season, analysts, reporters and the like have been calling for the Colts to open up their offense and throw the ball downfield, ditching the power run identity they've tried to build throughout the 2013 season.
During the last three weeks, the Colts have finally done that. As a result, they've jumped out to big leads over Houston, Kansas City and, most recently, Jacksonville. Andrew Luck was finding receivers down the field against the Jaguars early this week, which in turn opened up the shallow middle of the field.
In the first quarter, Luck found T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener down the field for big plays (37- and 25-yard receptions, respectively) and then found success with Hilton and Griff Whalen feasting on short-to-intermediate routes for the rest of the game.
When the Colts looked down the field and opened up the offense, they were incredibly effective on Sunday. When they tried to control the clock, mix things up and be a little too cute with the power run game, they struggled. The former should be the offense they open the playoffs with, or the Colts will make things far to difficult on themselves.
You could see the difference starkly in this game between when the Colts intend to score and when they intend...other things on offense.— Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) December 29, 2013
With another strong game, Andrew Luck continues his hot stretch as the team reaches the playoffs, the best sign possible for Indianapolis' playoff hopes.
Andrew Luck's past four games: 8 TD passes, 1 INT. 23/9 ratio this season. In his second year. With numerous injuries to his key targets— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) December 29, 2013
Despite the rough patches this season, Luck finished strong, playing as well as anybody not named Peyton Manning as the season closes up. A big part of the Colts' fate still rests in Pep Hamilton's hands, who needs to continue to open up the offense, but despite philosophy, Luck has been much more comfortable over the last four weeks, and it's shown.
If Luck is comfortable and playing like this, the Colts can beat any AFC counterpart.
As discussed previously, the Colts opened up the offense on Sunday, but it wasn't the only key to their offensive success.
The Colts made a concentrated effort to get the ball to their playmakers in this one, namely T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener.
Fleener only caught one pass for 25 yards, but between that and another target down the seam that Fleener dropped, it opened things up in the shallow middle for Hilton, who caught 11 of 15 targets for 155 yards, both career highs.
Both Fleener and Hilton finished with impressive seasons. Hilton ended the season with 82 catches and 1,083 yards (five touchdowns), and Fleener finished with 52 catches and 608 yards (four touchdowns). They should be the primary weapons in the playoffs, specifically in a shotgun, downfield-focused offense.
Once again, the Colts struggled to run the football. It's no shocking revelation at this point in the season.
But what Donald Brown and Trent Richardson's combined 20-carry, 56-yard day emphasized is just how bad the offensive line is. They just allow penetration far too often to be consistent in run-blocking. There wasn't much there for either back today, with each having a couple good runs buried behind numerous stuffs.
It reinforces the fact that the Colts can't be a power running team this season. They need to increase their shotgun and hurry-up usage rather than their huddling, I-formation usage. When they went no-huddle and ran with draws combined with downfield throws, they were successful in the first quarter.
Brown will give the Colts big plays occasionally, but the running game outside of that is necessary for short yardage (two short-yardage touchdowns Sunday) and not much else.
Robert Mathis continued his dominance of the Jaguars on Sunday, picking up two sacks to leave him with 19.5 for the season and 111 for his career. The season mark of 19.5 sets a new Colts franchise record and ties for the 10th-best single-season mark. His 111 career sacks move him to 20th all time, moving past Greg Townsend.
With his 19.5 sacks leading the league this season, Mathis has a legitimate case for the Defensive Player of the Year award. He wasn't the league's best player (that would be J.J. Watt, by a wide margin), but by leading the league in sacks with so little help around him, he was the most impactful.
Mathis changed entire games with his sacks, both by creating turnovers and opening up lanes for other players to get pass rush. Without him, the Colts defense would be lost. As good as Robert Quinn has been in St. Louis, he has far more support.
Despite the loss of Dwight Freeney, Mathis put forth his best season and shot up, even compared with Freeney, in terms of the players' respective Colts legacies.
Like so many other players on this team, Jerrell Freeman continued his stretch of strong play on Sunday with a team-leading eight tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.
Freeman has had a few different rough stretches throughout this season and was downright bad against Cincinnati a few weeks ago, but the last two weeks have been phenomenal for the second-year linebacker. When Freeman is active, he makes a big splash, with a strong ability to blitz, cover and create turnovers.
With 5.5 sacks on the season, Freeman had the second-most on the team and should be used in that role more often. Even when he's not blitzing, he's a very effective QB spy, as we discussed earlier this season. With another sack on a blitz Sunday and more strong play in coverage, he's becoming quite the weapon for Greg Manusky.
The Colts once again got a sweep of the AFC South, the first time they've gone 6-0 against Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee since the 2009 season and the third time since the AFC South's creation in 2003.
The Colts dominated the division during the Peyton Manning era, but the Texans took advantage of Manning's injury in 2011 and have held the crown for the last two seasons. This year, however, the Colts took it back, and did so in convincing fashion.
In the AFC South's history (2002), Colts have won 10+ games eleven times. Jaguars, Titans, Texans have combined for seven 10+ win seasons.— Derek Schultz (@Schultz1260) December 29, 2013
Jacksonville and Houston both have promising teams, and the Colts will need to stay on their toes. The Jaguars have a promising young head coach in Gus Bradley and an intelligent front office led by David Caldwell. Houston has a talented roster, although a messy staffing situation. With both franchises possibly getting a quarterback with a high pick in the 2014 draft, the AFC South could get competitive in years to come.
But for now, the title, once again, belongs to Indianapolis.
The playoffs are a strange time in the NFL. Rarely does the best team win the NFL's single-elimination playoff. In fact, Super Bowl winners are "getting more random," per Neil Paine of Sports Reference (h/t Football Perspective).
Basically any team that has a quarterback capable of going on a hot streak can win a championship, and the Colts certainly fit that mold. Luck is young and not yet an elite quarterback, but he could absolutely go on a hot streak. Adding to that potential is the Colts' enigmatic defense, which has been both terrible and amazing for different stretches this season.
With the offense finally coming together, the defense on a hot streak and the randomness of the playoffs, the Colts are as primed for a deep run as any team. Of course, we've seen this team get blown out by Kellen Clemens and the Rams, so a wild-card loss is possible as well.
But after last week's demolishing of the Chiefs, Colts fans have to be confident heading into January.