A Capsule Look at the Colts' Sunday Showdown Against the Broncos
Indianapolis Colts (12-0) vs. Denver Broncos (8-4)
Sunday, December 13, 2009 (1:00 p.m. EST)
Lucas Oil Stadium (63,000 capacity) – Indianapolis, Ind.
Television/Radio: CBS Sports and 1070-The Fan/HANK-FM 97.1
The Indianapolis Colts can clinch home-field advantage and make history this Sunday when they host the Denver Broncos in the tail end of back-to-back home games.
With a win over the Broncos, the Colts can clinch the AFC' top playoff seed, an accomplishment that would ensure home-field advantage as long as the club remains alive in the hunt. A victory also would extend the team's regular-season winning streak to 22 games, surpassing New England's league-record of 21.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said he has talked to his team about recent milestones, but said he is more focused on preparing for a dangerous Broncos team.
"We certainly make them aware (of milestones), but they already know," Caldwell said. "We don't have to tell them the significance of the game. It's not foreign to them. We address it but we don't make a big issue of it. We try to focus in on the things that we can control. That's how we practice. That's how we prepare. Then we go out and play the game."
It is unusual for an NFL team to have an opportunity to clinch its conference's top seed in Week 14, but with the Colts' 12-0 start, the team can do just that on Sunday.
"Whenever you have the opportunity to do it early, it's always great," wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. "I guarantee that there are 31 other teams that wish they could do it (this) week. It's always a bonus."
To accomplish the feat, the Colts will have to beat a Denver team that started the season 6-0, and has won its last two games. But with Denver being equipped with one of the best pass defenses in the league, the Colts are not underestimating the difficult challenge that lies ahead.
"They played well even through that stretch of losses," Caldwell said. "They are a good, solid football team. I think they just fought through the slump they had and got back on the winning track. They are basically the same group that was winning those games at the outset. And they are the same group that is winning now."
The Colts trail the Broncos in their all-time regular-season series, 11-6. But Indianapolis won the last meeting in 2007, overcoming a 10-point deficit to beat Denver, 38-20.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney said that with the division already in hand, the team's next goal is to secure the first seed in the AFC, which would mean beating the Broncos.
"Hopefully, we can do that," he said. "Maybe some guys who need some rest can get some after that. But for now, this next game is very important."
The Colts continue to have one of the stingiest defenses in the league, giving up just 16.8 points per game, the second-fewest in the league.
While veterans like Freeney, linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Antoine Bethea have led the way, the defense has also benefited greatly from some unsung heroes this season, such as outside linebacker Clint Session.
In his second year as a starter, the Colts' 2007 fourth-round draft choice has emerged as yet another success story from the team's defensive unit.
In 12 games this year, Session has totaled 95 tackles, the second-most on the team. In the past five weeks, Session has been particularly effective, racking up 57 tackles, including 12 against Tennessee last week.
The third-year veteran also has two interceptions this season, including a 27t return against Houston two weeks ago, the first touchdown of his career.
"He is making real good progress," Caldwell said. "He is coming along, and I think he has a better understanding of the defense. He is being a lot more productive. I think you can tell by the number of tackles he's had every week. He's been in the double digits here as of late. We anticipate that is going to continue."
Session, who moved from strongside to weakside linebacker this offseason, said he attributes his success this season to his ability to play faster.
"It comes with being comfortable," he said. "If you watch football players in the NFL, everyone is good and can play ball. It's just a matter of who can react the fastest. And that comes with being comfortable with your scheme and understanding it.
"I think I'm getting a better feel for things right now and it's showing in my play," he said.
But Session said he isn't the only one who has improved this season. The linebacker gave credit to the team's improved defensive line for his success.
"They are playing well, and I'm running free," Session said. "I can't take all of the credit."
With players like Freeney and defensive end Robert Mathis on the edges, and defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Dan Muir plugging up the middle, Session said the Colts' talent upfront is "creating attention."
"If you are a good player upfront, the offensive line has to account for you," Session said. "They are distracting the (offensive line) for the small amount of time I need and then us linebackers are able to run freely."
Caldwell said Session is still developing and needs to work on dropping back into coverage. But the Colts coach said his third-year linebacker has been a big factor on the field this season and is happy to see Session coming along.
"He is playing well," Caldwell said. "Obviously, he's a guy that packs a punch."
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE BRONCOS
Under first-year head coach Josh McDaniels, the Broncos have proven themselves to be one of the top teams in the AFC this season.
With an efficient offense and a physical defense, the Broncos are 8-4 through 12 games. Currently, Denver is riding a two-game winning streak with victories over New York and Kansas City coming in the last two weeks.
Although they feature the ninth-best rushing offense in the league, the most talked about aspect of Denver's offense this season is its new quarterback, Kyle Orton.
After starting 33 games in Chicago over four years, Orton was traded this offseason to Denver for quarterback Jay Cutler.
In 11 starts this season for Denver, the former Purdue quarterback has played admirably, passing for 2,627 yards, 14 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
"He is performing awfully well," Caldwell said. "He's a guy that is throwing the ball with a great deal of accuracy. … He's using all of his weapons in (Brandon) Marshall, (Eddie) Royal and (Brandon) Stokley. He's doing a great job of mixing it up a bit, and he's using his tight ends as well. It looks as if he has really hit his stride. He is really causing teams a lot of problems."
On defense, the Broncos are giving up just 16.8 points per game, the third-fewest in the league. The team also is giving up the third-fewest overall yards and the second-fewest passing yards.
The team features several outstanding defensive players, including eight-time Pro Bowl selection Champ Bailey, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who is leading the NFL in sacks with 15.
"He's a lot like Dwight," Caldwell said. "He has girth, power and speed. If you wanted a comparison, that would be the guy. He's a non-stop player. He's an extremely high-energy guy with a variety of pass rush moves, and he's a good run defender as well."
Freeney said he has not studied Dumervil enough to know how similar they are, but did say the Bronco is a dangerous pass rusher.
Freeney also said he has been impressed by Denver's offense, which creates problems for opposing defenses and plenty of confusion.
With their zone running schemes and their ability to mask play-action, Denver will keep the Colts on their toes this Sunday, according to Freeney.
"They play well together and it's going to be a challenge on Sunday," he said.
The Colts issued the game status/injury report on Friday with the following players listed as probable for Sunday's game against Denver: WRs-Hank Baskett (personal) and Reggie Wayne (foot), LB-Gary Brackett (foot), DBs-Melvin Bullitt (shoulder), Kelvin Hayden (knee) and Tim Jennings (ankle), OGs-Kyle DeVan (shin) and Jamey Richard (shoulder), QB-Peyton Manning (glute) and TE-Tom Santi (hand).
Listed as questionable for Sunday are: DEs-Keyunta Dawson (knee) and Robert Mathis (quad), OTs-Ryan Diem (hamstring), Charlie Johnson (foot) and Tony Ugoh (hip), DT-Daniel Muir (hamstring) and LB-Clint Session (calf), while the following Colts are listed as out: RB-Donald Brown (chest), DB-Aaron Francisco (ankle), WR-Anthony Gonzalez (knee) and K-Adam Vinatieri (right knee).
• "He's doing a nice job, and it's a pleasure having him here. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to get Darrell here in the offseason. He's definitely contributing for us on the defensive side of the ball and in the kicking game and just in general leadership. He's a guy who played in a program that won a lot of games in Indianapolis, and he knows what it takes to win games late in the year. Those kinds of players are invaluable to your team." – Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels on former Colt DT-Darrell Reid, who now plays in Denver
• "Whenever you have the opportunity to get records and history and those sorts of things, it's always good. But is it one of our goals? Not necessarily. We all have the main goal, and that's to make the Super Bowl. If that particular goal is in the way and we can accomplish it, let's go ahead and knock it down. But if not, we still have the main goal to go for. Not that my two cents matter, but I would love to be a part of that." – Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne on if 16-0 means anything to him
• "I know one thing that won't change is Jim's input on our offense and our day-to-day practice plays and game plan ideas. He's always been very helpful to me and to our offense, as far as giving ideas or coming up with different code words for audibles and signals and those kinds of things. That was important, that he was still going to be able to do that. Obviously, he won't be out there on the practice field and he won't be suited up, but that's still critical. It's been critical to our offensive success for the past number of years. … Medically, the surgery and the potential for that is all to be determined. But I do hate it for him. Jim has worked extremely hard. That was where it had to go from a physical standpoint, but the cerebral and mental part, we still expect Jim to be a big factor in helping us." – Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on Jim Sorgi being placed on Injured Reserve this week
STORYLINES TO WATCH FOR…
1) GOING FOR 22
The Colts will not be the only ones inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday who have experienced a 21-game winning streak.
McDaniels, Denver's first-year head coach, was New England's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before taking the job with the Broncos.
In New England, McDaniels helped coach the team that won 21 consecutive regular-season games over a three-year span. Earlier this week, Denver's head coach gave his insight on regular-season lengthy streaks.
"I think the fact that (Indianapolis) has won 21 in a row is a huge accomplishment, but I don't necessarily know that it takes away or distracts you from your focus on each individual game," McDaniels said. "I certainly don't think it did with us, and I certainty don't believe it's affecting the Colts, either.
"As long as you have a veteran group with great leadership, you stay focused on one game at a time," McDaniels said. "The accomplishments and the records are great and they're made to be broken, and they're a team that's certainly capable of breaking many."
2) STOKELY BACK IN INDY
The man who Peyton Manning once anointed "the best slot receiver in NFL history" returns to Indianapolis this Sunday.
Brandon Stokley – who played four seasons with the Colts from 2003-06 – comes back to Indianapolis this weekend for the second time since leaving for Denver three seasons ago. In 2004, Stokley had the best year of his career, reeling in 68 passes for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Colts.
Caldwell, who was the team's quarterbacks coach while Stokley played in Indy, called the wide receiver "the ultimate competitor."
"He still means a lot to some of the guys on the team," Caldwell said. "They certainly admire his work habits, his zeal for the game and his love for life. He's a great guy to be around and a natural leader. He has coaching in his family, too. I wouldn't be surprised if one day he coached as well."
For Denver this season, Stokley has played in a reduced role, but has been effective when called upon.
"Brandon's playing great," Denver quarterback Kyle Orton said. "Brandon is one of these guys that maybe has seen his reps go down a little bit, but whenever he is in the game, he's certainly made a bunch of plays for us and has closed out a couple of huge games.
In addition to Stokley, former Colts defensive tackle Darrell Reid also is making his return to Indianapolis. Reid played with the Colts from 2005-08, appearing in 55 games and totaling 67 tackles.
3) DOWN THE STRETCH
Should the Colts win on Sunday, it will give the team an opportunity to rest its players down the stretch before the playoffs.
The team has a game next Thursday at Jacksonville, a quick turnaround from Sunday.
"It's up to the coach exactly how much rest we give certain guys once we clinch, but we definitely have to win this game first," Freeney said.
With a recent history of clinching a playoff spot early, the Colts are not foreign to this possibility. Caldwell said he has been receiving opinions from all over on what he should do with his players over the final few weeks.
"It's entertaining, there are a lot of different views," Caldwell said. "There are a lot of different people who have their opinion. Like anything else, you can learn something new every day. I listen. I don't necessarily have to comment. Some have pretty good ideas. I'm interested in the one that works. If anybody can guarantee me, then I may listen a little closer."