Gutsy Win over Patriots Cements Colts as the Wild-Card Team No One Wants to Play

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 19, 2021

Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Darius Leonard (53) celebrates along with teammates Kenny Moore II (23) and Khari Willis after intercepting a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Aaron Doster/Associated Press

The Indianapolis Colts have been all over the place in 2021. This is a team that opened the season by dropping their first three games and four of their first five. When the Baltimore Ravens finished off a comeback win over Indy in overtime on Oct. 11, the Colts looked done.

Stick a fork in them.

But a funny thing happened between then and that point when you realize that you probably shouldn't still be eating Thanksgiving leftovers (Dude, it's Dec. 18… stop. Turkey isn't gray). The Colts started peeling off wins. Beating good teams. Scratching and clawing their way back into the postseason conversation.

After beating the soaring New England Patriots 27-17 on Saturday night, the Colts are very much in that conversation. But they are more than that. Indianapolis is becoming the team that division leaders whisper about. The team that leaves opposing coaches glancing nervously at the playoff seedings.

The Colts have become the team that no one wants to see in the Wild Card Round.

The Patriots have long been a bugaboo for the Colts—Tom Brady gave Colts fans enough nightmare fuel to last multiple lifetimes. And given that the Patriots entered Saturday's game winners of both seven straight overall and eight straight against Indianapolis, it's understandable that the sellout crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium was a tad uneasy entering the game.

It didn't take long for unease to turn to celebration. And then back to unease. And then back to celebration.

After the teams traded punts (and a first drive by the Colts that contained zero runs), Indianapolis remembered that Jonathan Taylor was on the roster—and put the league's leading rusher to work.

Taylor didn't get the glory touch on Indy's first touchdown drive—Nyhein Hines scored on an eight-yard pop pass from Carson Wentz. But other than that play, the drive that put Indy ahead for good was all runs—and all Taylor.

Taylor entered Week 15 leading the National Football League in both rushing yards (1,348) and scores on the ground (16). The Patriots came into Week 15 with a defense that entered the week third in total defense—and hell-bent on taking Taylor away. For most of the game, they did—his first 28 carries generated under four yards a pop.

Not every team is going to be able to stifle Jonathan Taylor like that. In order to try, you have to load up the box and play man coverage. The Patriots were able to do that with a bit more success after wide receiver Michael Pittman was ejected. But if Pittman and T.Y. Hilton are out there, loaded boxes carry risk.

They also don't work all the time.


JONATHAN TAYLOR. 67 YARDS. GOOD NIGHT. 📺: #NEvsIND on @NFLNetwork 📱: https://t.co/DL75sQUMR5 https://t.co/V0jzema8xz

Taylor's fourth-quarter 67-yard touchdown run ripped the still-beating heart out of the Patriots' comeback attempt. That was it. Game over. Drive safely. It was the 11th straight game in which Taylor has found the end zone for the Colts. He's a legitimate MVP candidate.

And you can argue that he wasn't even the Colts' biggest star against New England.

As a whole, Indy's defensive stats looked good against New England, but not great—the Colts were actually outgained by 90 yards. But Indianapolis actually played a fantastic game defensively, especially in the first half.

The ground game that the Patriots had ridden over their winning streak? It had 81 yards total. The clean, mistake-free "Patriots Way" ball New England is famous for? The Pats lost the turnover battle, with stud linebackers Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke combining for 11 solo tackles and each intercepting a pass.

The Colts don't get a ton of run defensively. But this is a team that entered Saturday's contest 13th in total defense, 12th against the pass, ninth in scoring defense and leading the league in takeaways.

Whether it's Leonard and Okereke at linebacker, DeForest Buckner up front or Kenny Moore and Khari Willis in the secondary, the Colts have talent at all three levels on that side of the ball. While speaking to the NFL Network after the game, Taylor chalked the win up to an entire team doing its job.

"It was an all-out effort," Taylor said. "Offense, defense, special teams being able to come together to play a complete game,"

That's right, the special teams did their part too, blocking a punt that was returned for a touchdown by E.J. Speed.

It was Speed's second such return of the season.

Yes, this was a game where Carson Wentz attempted just 12 passes, completed only five, passed for 57 yards and threw an interception. But Wentz was down his No. 1 receiver and entered the game with a plus-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the 12th-highest passer rating in the NFL—higher than Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 18: Carson Wentz #2 of the Indianapolis Colts scrambles as Deatrich Wise #91 of the New England Patriots defends during the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyo
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This isn't to say that Wentz is Allen. Or Mahomes. But he has for the most part been a smart, efficient, accurate leader for the Colts offense. Simply put, the 28-year-old has been worth the pick the Colts gave up to get him.

Now that we've talked up Indy, it's cold water time. The Tennessee Titans are wobbling—enough that a loss to Pittsburgh Sunday would hardly be a massive upset. But the Titans also play two teams that presently sport losing records over the last three weeks of the season and have two head-to-head wins over the Colts.

An AFC South title for the Colts (and home playoff game) isn't impossible. But it also isn't likely.

That's OK though. This is a team built to win on the road, thanks in large part to Taylor and the ground game. He may have had some success running the ball outdoors in the cold in college. The elements won't affect that defense, either.

The absolute last thing in the world the Titans want is to have to play these Colts a third time this season—anywhere. The Colts beat the New England Patriots Saturday and wiped the floor with the Bills in Buffalo in Week 11. And given that no one appears to want to win the AFC North, every team in that division looks vulnerable.

Calling the Colts a Super Bowl contender might be pushing it—Indy has had an unsettling tendency to let teams back into games, including the Pats in Week 15. But it's no stretch whatsoever to say that given Leonard and that defense, Taylor and that run game and one of the league's better head coaches in Frank Reich, the Colts will be playing in the Divisional Round after sending one of the AFC division-winners packing.

Watch. Teams will line up to be on the in-season edition of Hard Knocks in 2022.