1. A potential playoff clincher.
The Colts will clinch a spot in the playoffs with a win over the Raiders on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, presenting a clear directive for a team that began the season 0-3 and 1-4: Win and in.
And those circumstances shouldn't be diminished: The Colts always believed they were a good team, even if their record didn't show it back in early October. But this is a team with an opportunity to not just sneak into the playoffs, but to enter the postseason as one of the league's most dangerous teams.
"We wanted to control our own destiny in a sense and we got that opportunity come this Sunday," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "We put ourselves in this position early on, starting off 0-3, then going to 1-4. Then, fighting our way back to this moment. We control our own destiny, like I said. We got a perfect opportunity to punch our ticket."
2. Who's the Colts' starting quarterback?
The earliest Carson Wentz could be activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list is Sunday – and if he is, he'll start against the Raiders. If Wentz does not clear protocols, rookie Sam Ehlinger will get the nod. Ehlinger practiced this week as the Colts' starting quarterback and feels ready for the challenge if he does need to make his first NFL start in a potential playoff-clinching game.
But Ehlinger has been preparing to start for a while now – Reich named him the Colts' backup quarterback in early November, a couple weeks after he was activated from injured reserve. He said something interesting on Wednesday about the adjustment he's had to make to taking mental reps – this from a guy who was a four-year starter at the University of Texas and has had to learn how to adjust to being a backup this year.
"For me, it starts with having a plan at the line of scrimmage and knowing what your responsibility is on each given play," Ehlinger said. "It's very easy for guys that aren't necessarily taking the physical rep to just watch your position and say, okay, I'm going to think through whatever he does. I've tried to make an emphasis to where, I'm sitting behind him and at practice, I'm always going through the same footwork, going through the same drop and seeing the defense and going through, what would I do? I
"I know Carson is going to do it exactly right, but I'm testing myself as well. So for that, that mental space, that's the way I've tried to capitalize on the time I've had watching Carson. It's not necessarily doing exactly what Carson does on every play, which I mean pretty much 99 percent of the time he's doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing. So, it's a good guy to watch. But just coming to the line of scrimmage and making a decision for myself opposed to just watching what he does."
It's hard not to be impressed and encouraged by the way Ehlinger is able to communicate the responsibilities of his job. Head coach Frank Reich has lauded Ehlinger's "it factor" for months – and, coupled with his athleticism, it's why the Colts have been comfortable all season with Ehlinger as their backup.
Again, we won't know until Sunday if Wentz will play or not. And while Ehlinger is ready, Wentz will be too – the Colts conducted all their meetings virtually this week, and because Wentz has started 16 games this season, he's in a good place to handle missing a week of practice and then starting on Sunday – better than when he had to do that while recovering from two sprained ankles back in Week 3.
"The good news is unlike when this happened in Week 3 where Carson wasn't available the whole week – he still hadn't had a training camp," Reich said. "He had barely practiced at that point. But now, we've had a whole year of practice so we've got a lot of accumulated reps. So, if he's able to get himself back and ready, we're confident. I feel like we're at a much, much better spot that we were in Week 3 when he didn't practice."
3. Will Jonathan Taylor keep pushing for the MVP?
With two weeks left in the season, Jonathan Taylor finds himself squarely in the conversation for league MVP – a remarkable thing for a running back in 2021. Only three non-quarterbacks have won the MVP in the last 20 years, with the most recent being Adrian Peterson in 2012; plenty of folks nationally believe the MVP is an award that should only be given to a quarterback.
But could Taylor really beat out Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady to win the league MVP?
Maybe the better question is: Why not?
Taylor leads the NFL with 1,626 rushing yards – which is nearly 500 more than the Bengals' Joe Mixon, who's second in the NFL with 1,159 yards. Taylor's 17 rushing touchdowns are not only a Colts franchise record, but they're three more than the Cardinals' James Conner has in second place. Taylor has 97 rushing first downs, a ridiculous 38 more than any other player.
Taylor (5.5 YPC) is one-tenth of a yard behind the Cowboys' Tony Pollard (5.6 YPC) for the highest yards per carry average among running backs; Pollard's hit that rate in 170 fewer rushing attempts than Taylor.
And perhaps the most important thing about Taylor: The Colts are 9-0 when he rushes for over 100 yards this season. He's the engine of one of the best offenses in the NFL.
Isn't that worthy of MVP consideration?
4. How will Matt Eberflus' defense scheme against Derek Carr?
The Raiders enter Week 17 third in the NFL in explosive passing plays (15+ yards) with 107. Quarterback Derek Carr is averaging a career high 291 yards per game in large part because of his ability to stretch the field vertically, and he's doing it while completing a shade under 69 percent of his passes.
The Colts defense, meanwhile, has allowed 74 passing plays of 15 or more yards – ninth-lowest in the NFL. But this defense has been consistently improving in that department: Since Week 9, they're sixth in explosive passing plays allowed; since Week 11, they're fourth. Against the Cardinals, the Colts allowed only three passing plays of 15 or more yards despite having a number of reserves playing significant snaps against Kyler Murray and Arizona's offense.
"We stayed with our game plan, we adjusted here and there a little bit during the course of the game like we always do to fit the game," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. "Those guys did a great job of communicating all the way through, on the same page and did a nice job of executing. We weren't perfect, we never are, but we did a nice job of being pretty consistent there."
So what will win out on Sunday: The Raiders' explosive passing offense, or the Colts' defusing pass defense?
While the Colts will not have safety Andrew Sendejo (concussion), safety Khari Willis and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin were activated off the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week and are in line to play Sunday. Adding those guys back in to a defense expertly coordinated by Matt Eberflus should help the Colts' efforts to keep a lid on Las Vegas' offense.
Reich on Friday praised the work Eberflus has done with the Colts' defense.
"'Flus has done a phenomenal job the whole year. I mean, phenomenal," Reich said. "We've said it time and time again, I think we've got better as a defense. That's always primarily the players firs and foremost. But don't underestimate what 'Flus has done, and his staff, as we have grown as a defense this year, as we've adapted and adjusted to what we do best, as we're playing different teams."
5. The turnover battle, again.
The gap between the Colts and Raiders when it comes to takeaways and turnovers is significant:
- Takeaways: Colts 31 (2nd), Raiders 13 (28th)
- Turnovers: Colts 17 (7th), Raiders 22 (T-22nd)
- Turnover margin: Colts +14 (T-2nd), Raiders -9 (T-27th)
So the last thought here is the Colts need to keep doing what they're doing – and force the Raiders to keep doing what they've been doing, too. The Colts are 0-2 when losing the turnover battle and 1-3 when tying it; they're 8-1 when winning the turnover battle. The Raiders, meanwhile, are 4-1 when winning or tying the turnover battle and are 4-6 when losing it.