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Colts-Falcons preview: AFC South, playoff positioning on the line in final road game of 2023 regular season

The Colts have a chance to lead the AFC South with two weeks to go, but have to take care of business in Atlanta and get some help in Tampa on Sunday. 


The Colts could wake up on Christmas morning leading the AFC South. Or still in a wild card spot. Or out of the playoff picture with two games left in the 2023 season. 

Those are the stakes awaiting the Colts on Sunday not only in Atlanta but in Tampa, where the Jacksonville Jaguars will face the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers – possibly without starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

A Colts win over the Falcons coupled with a Jaguars loss puts the Colts in position to control their own destiny in the AFC South – a division they haven't won since 2014 – with two games left. If the Colts and Jaguars win, the Colts still would control their own playoff destiny as at least a wild card team. If the Colts lose, they'd need other results to break their way either this weekend or over the season's final two weeks to reach the playoffs.

Table inside Article
Team Record Remaining opponents
1. Jacksonville Jaguars 8-6 @TB, vs. CAR, @TEN
2. Indianapolis Colts 8-6 @ATL, vs. LV, vs. HOU
3. Houston Texans 8-6 vs. CLE, vs. TEN, @IND

So, full stop, only good things can happen if the Colts knock off the 6-8 Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday. 

"We're close, but you gotta stay focused because close is not good enough," running back Jonathan Taylor said. "How do we get closer? Take care of business Sunday. Then the next one. But it's very, very exciting to even be mentioning that because we know we have the caliber team to do it. But it's all about execution."

The Falcons will host the Colts on Christmas Eve with their backs against the wall in the NFC South. They're one game behind the 7-7 Buccaneers and, after an ugly defeat to the 12-loss Carolina Panthers last weekend, made a switch at quarterback for the third time this season. Taylor Heinicke will start against the Colts, replacing Desmond Ridder, who replaced Heinicke in Week 11, who replaced Ridder in Week 9. 

Atlanta lost all three games in which Heinicke has played this year, and the former Washington Commanders starter completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 498 yards with three touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 84.2 in those games. But Heinicke has a playmaking streak to his game, which the Colts learned last year at Lucas Oil Stadium: Through passes and scrambles, Heinicke churned out 64 yards on four consecutive plays with under 80 seconds to go, including a game-winning scramble to deliver the Commanders a 17-16 win.

The Falcons also feature three former top-10 picks on offense in tight end Kyle Pitts, wide receiver Drake London and running back Bijan Robinson. And while the Colts haven't played the Falcons in four years, a few members of this defense have experience facing an offense designed by head coach Arthur Smith, who was the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator before being hired in Atlanta. 

And with the Falcons presenting a stiff challenge on defense – they're one of eight teams to allow fewer than 20 points per game – the Colts' defense knows they'll have to stay on top of this offense for all 60 minutes to win in Week 16. 

"We just gotta understand these guys, lotta tricks – your eye discipline is everything," safety Julian Blackmon said. "If you don't have your eyes in the correct spot, you're going to get lost quickly in the game. It comes down to details and focus, getting in and out of every play."

Defensively, the Falcons bring one of the NFL's top units on a play-to-play and situational basis:

Table inside Article
Stat # NFL rank
Points/game 19.9 8th
Yards/play 4.9 7th
Yards/rush 3.9 9th
Yards/pass 6.2 11th
Third down % 33.5% 3rd
Red zone TD% 37.5% 2nd

"They've got a good scheme defensively," head coach Shane Steichen said. "Shoot, the backend, (A.J. Terrell) really good. Then (Jessie) Bates III, the safety, and then obviously Calais Campbell has been doing it a long time. Then they've got Bud Dupree over there, who is a good player as well. They've been doing a good job on defense."

At this point in the NFL calendar, no games are easier or tougher than others. They're all pressure-packed, must-win games. For the Colts, here's how a few results this weekend would impact their playoff odds, which are currently 56 percent to make the postseason and 25 percent to win the AFC South:

  • With a win: 71% (40% to win AFC South)
  • With a win and a Jaguars loss: 74% (51% to win AFC South)
  • With a win and a Jaguars win: 68% (24% to win AFC South)
  • With a loss: 47% (17% to win AFC South)
  • With a loss and a Jaguars win: 40% (3 percent to win AFC South)

There are a host of other games that could impact the Colts' playoff chances, too:

Bengals (8-6, 6th in AFC) at Steelers (7-7, 10th)

  • Bengals win: Colts' odds drop 6 percent
  • Bengals lose: Colts' odds increase 5 percent

Bills (8-6, 9th) at Chargers (5-9, 13th)

  • Bills win: Colts' odds drop 2 percent
  • Bills lose: Colts' odds increase 5 percent

Browns (9-5, 5th) at Texans (8-6, 8th)

  • Texans win: Colts' odds drop 3 percent
  • Texans lose: Colts odds' increase 1 percent

Patriots (3-11, 16th) at Broncos (7-7, 11th)

  • Broncos win: Colts' odds stay the same
  • Broncos lose: Colts' odds increase 2 percent

The Colts, though, won't need to be scoreboard watching as long as they win on Sunday. And this is a team that's been winning a lot lately – the Colts are 5-1 since Week 8.

As Taylor said: The Colts are close, but not there yet. And as they look to get there – to the playoffs, either as a wild card or division champions – they'll do so with good vibes across the entire team. 

"I think we've got a lot of confidence in the guys around us," quarterback Gardner Minshew II said. "I think the offense has confidence in defense who has it in special teams and all the way around. I think we have – no matter what happens in a game, we are going to figure it out. It is a lot of fun to feel that on Sundays."

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