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Why Colts' full-team win over Buccaneers checked important box in AFC playoff race

The Colts improved to 6-5 with their Week 12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

The Colts' 27-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday was defined by gutsy playcalling and complementary football – the sort of stuff contending teams need to put on display after Thanksgiving. 

Whether it was Mo Alie-Cox scything 30 yards on fourth-and-one, or Samson Ebukam knocking the ball out, or Jonathan Taylor icing the game, the Colts made the plays they needed to make to push past the Buccaneers and cement themselves in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. 

"You gotta win in all types of ways," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "I felt all three phases, offense, defense and special teams, everybody made plays and everybody contributed to the win today. Late in the year, that's what you want."

The Colts won all three of their games in November and enter the holiday season with a 6-5 record and a legitimate chance to make noise in the AFC. This is a team that's weathered several challenges this season: Taylor began the season on PUP, starting quarterback Anthony Richardson sustained a season-ending injury in Week 5, both starting outside cornerbacks (JuJu Brents and Dallis Flowers) have been in and out of the starting lineup, defensive tackle Grover Stewart was suspended six games in October and linebacker Shaquille Leonard was waived just last week. 

But through all that, the Colts have kept plugging away and doing some of the things running back Zack Moss – no stranger to playoff pushes during his two and a half seasons with the Buffalo Bills – sees contenders needing to do. 

"We do a lot of good things fundamentally, those things that show up in the playoffs — it's who can do the fundamentals at a high level," Moss said. "As the season goes, we've shown that the biggest thing is we gotta continue to be consistent, find ways to close things out at the end of the year."

The Colts on Sunday improved to 6-0 when winning the turnover battle – safety-turned-linebacker Ronnie Harrison Jr. picked off Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield in the first half, then Ebukam's strip-sack was recovered by defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo in the fourth quarter (Minshew threw an interception for the Colts' lone turnover).

Offensively, the Colts averaged 5.7 yards per rush against a defense that entered Week 12 fifth against the run (3.7 yards/carry). Against Tampa's sixth-ranked fourth down defense (40 percent conversion rate allowed), the Colts converted three of four fourth downs – and generated two touchdowns off those three conversions. And against the NFL's stingiest red zone defense (34.4 touchdown rate, lowest in the league), the Colts scored touchdowns on three of their five possessions inside the 20. 

"We always talk about good teams hit their stride in November and December," Alie-Cox said. "We went 3-0 in November so we're just trying to keep it going. We know it's just one game at a time because AFC, everybody's 5-5, 6-5, everybody has around the same record. We're just trying to take it one day at a time and don't get too big-headed, because we know we're going to down to Tennessee and we got a tough division matchup."

Before the Colts hit the road to face the Titans in Week 13 and then the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14 – the latter of which will be Stewart's first game back off suspension – they had to take care of business at home. The Colts entered Week 12 with a 1-4 record at Lucas Oil Stadium this season, and broadly needed to reverse that trend to stay in the AFC playoff picture. 

That's where Sunday's win over the Buccaneers in downtown Indianapolis checked an important box. The next time the Colts play here will be in Week 15 against the currently 7-4 Pittsburgh Steelers – a game that could carry massive playoff implications (the kickoff date and time for that game is TBD, with the NFL having the option for it to be played Saturday in a standalone window or Sunday). 

But that's looking too far ahead. The Colts are in in playoff mode, and that mode means you can't get too far ahead of yourself. The Titans are next. Meaningful games in December await. 

"From here on out, we're in that playoff mentality," quarterback Gardner Minshew II said. "We have everything we want in front of us but we just gotta take it one game at a time, continue to build, continue to get better. I think we're still figuring some things out. I think we like where we're at."

View in-game highlights from the Colts versus Buccaneers at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 26.

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