INDIANAPOLIS – Heading into December, the entire NFL has experienced heart-stopping games week-in and week-out.
There have been 95 games decided by eight points or less, the most through the first 12 weeks of a season in NFL history.
The Colts have been involved in seven of those contests this year and have shown the poise needed to win six one-possession games.
Opposing the Colts this Sunday will be the Detroit Lions, and they have not shared the same success in games decided by small margins.
Detroit is 3-6 in one-possession games, including suffering back-to-back home losses that have diminished playoffs hopes.
Needing to string together victories down the stretch, the Lions will bring the league's top passing offense to the field on Sunday.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford leads the NFL in passing and is on pace to shatter the NFL's single-season passing attempts record of 691.
Stafford is 5-2 against the AFC the past two seasons, throwing 17 touchdowns and one interception and holding an average rating of 106.6 in those contests. When Stafford has a passer rating of at least 105.0, the Lions are 10-0.
Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson has been the recipient of many of those passes, and Colts interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians believes Stafford and Johnson form the best duo in the NFL.
"When you've got two guys with the quality of Matthew (Stafford) and Calvin (Johnson), they are as good as it gets in this league," Arians said.
"As far as a one-two punch, the guy throwing to a guy catching, Matthew can make every throw in the book and this guy (Johnson) can obviously take a short one and go over, or you could have him covered and he's still going to jump out and catch it. Don't get your heart broken if two guys are on him and he still catches the ball, just play the next down."
With 1,257 receiving yards this season, Johnson needs to average just more than 118 yards per game to break the all-time single season mark held by Jerry Rice.
Lions Head Coach Jim Schwartz knows how important Johnson is to his team's air attack and called his All-Pro receiver's skill set "unique."
"There's a lot of big receivers in the NFL. There's a lot of fast receivers in the NFL. There's a lot of guys that just have great leaping ability and things like that. There's a lot of savvy players in the NFL, (Johnson) combines them all," Schwartz said.
"What people don't see that don't see him every day is his incredible work ethic and his selflessness. When you talk about wide receivers in general, it's not a topic that comes up a lot of times with wide receivers but with Calvin it is. He's a team-first guy, he's a good blocker, he's one of our captains and as good of a player he is on the field, he's a better person and a better teammate. I think that's the thing that people who aren't around him every day, they don't see."
Johnson will be looking for his fifth straight 100-yard game on Sunday and in his past four outings, he is averaging 154.8 yards receiving.
At 6-5, 236, Johnson's frame is a major reason why he is considered the game's finest receiver.
"(Johnson) brings everything," Colts cornerback Darius Butler said. "If you want to go create a receiver on Madden, that's going to look like Calvin Johnson. He brings everything to the table, so we are going to have to bring our 'A' game."
While the challenge for the Colts defense will be defending the league's top passing offense, the task for the Colts offense comes in the trenches.
Indianapolis will face one of the league's top defensive fronts this weekend. The Lions defensive line has accounted for 23 of the team's 25 sacks. There is plenty of depth along the front.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh made headlines in the past week for an unintentional kick he made to Houston quarterback Matt Schaub. Schwartz acknowledged those stories but wanted to focus on what Suh means to the unit.
"People don't see (Suh) get doubled and another guy get freed up, or him hurry a quarterback or get good penetration in the run game. It's a thankless job being a defensive lineman," Schwartz said.
"Ndamukong is a guy that is a high-profile guy that gets a lot of scrutiny and a lot of attention, but that doesn't change the fact that when you're in the trenches in the NFL, it can be a thankless job from a statistical standpoint. I think that he's had a very consistent year, and he has affected the offense in every game he's played this year."
The Colts head to Detroit looking for their third road win in the past four tries, with getting off to a fast start and limiting turnovers being near the top of the priority list.
At 7-4, Indianapolis finds itself leading the AFC Wild Card chase by one game but any thoughts about playoff possibilities will be put on hold, as Arians is not changing his message.
"Just stay within the moment. Just stay within the process. It's worked this far," Arians said. "Stay with it one play at a time, one day at a time and don't get caught up in all that."
Colts 31, Lions 21 – December 14, 2008
A struggling Lions team gave the Colts everything they could handle before Indianapolis scored the game's final 10 points. After the Lions made two separate 11-point comebacks, the Colts turned things up in the final nine minutes to record their 10th win of the season. The Colts jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the first drive of the game when running back Dominic Rhodes scored from one-yard out. Detroit countered with a 51-yard Jason Hanson field goal after Indianapolis fumbled a punt. Indianapolis added a second-quarter touchdown when running back Chad Simpson plunged in from two yards with 5:29 left in the half. The Lions wasted no time answering as quarterback Dan Orlovsky drove the offense 69 yards in three plays, with wide receiver Calvin Johnson hauling in a 33-yard touchdown. Leaving 3:36 on the clock, the Colts offense once again went to work with an eight-play, 78-yard drive. Peyton Manning found tight end Dallas Clark for a three-yard touchdown. The Colts' 21-10 halftime lead was trimmed to 21-13 early in the third quarter with another Hanson field goal. Detroit then tied the game early in the fourth quarter when running back Kevin Smith scored on a one-yard touchdown before Orlovsky converted the two-point conversion on a pass to tight end Casey Fitzsimmons. The Colts answered with a seven-play, 88-yard drive that Rhodes ended with a one-yard touchdown for a 28-21 lead. The Indianapolis defense forced a Lions punt with 5:21 left, and the milked all but 39 seconds off the clock. Adam Vinatieri sealed the 31-21 victory with a 31-yard field goal.
*Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson versus the Colts secondary: *At 6-5, 236, the Colts simply cannot simulate the matchup Johnson will present on Sunday. In the last four games, Johnson is averaging eight catches and 154 yards. The Colts are hoping to get cornerback Vontae Davis back in the secondary. Davis has not played since the end of October.
Colts offensive line versus the Lions defensive line: Of the Lions' 25 sacks, 23 have come from the defensive line. Bruce Arians mentioned the depth at both the defensive tackle and end positions as why this might be the best line the Colts have seen all year. End Cliff Avril leads the unit with 7.5 sacks and tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley dominate the interior. The Colts' offensive line has been healthy with its expected starting five for the last two weeks.
-The Colts have won their past three meetings against the Lions.
-Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's seven wins are tied for the most by a rookie quarterback who was drafted No. 1 since 1970.
-Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne (1,105) needs 95 receiving yards to reach 1,200 for the sixth time in his career.
-Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has four touchdowns in his last two games.
-Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis has five sacks in his last four games vs. the NFC.
-Colts general manager Ryan Grigson (1995), defensive end Cory Redding (2003-08) and quarterback Drew Stanton (2007-11) all used to play for the Lions.
-Lions running back Mikel Leshoure has five rushing touchdowns in the past four games.
-Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is looking for his seventh straight game vs. the AFC with at least 100 yards receiving.
-Since 2010, tight end Brandon Pettigrew is third among NFL tight ends with 208 receptions.
-Lions defensive end Cliff Avril (Purdue) has three sacks and a forced fumble in the past two games.
-Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley has three sacks in his past three games.
-Lions offensive guard Dylan Gandy (2005-07), offensive tackle Corey Hilliard (2007-08) and cornerback Jacob Lacey (2009-11) used to play for the Colts.
-Lions assistant linebacker coach Bradford Banta was a tight end/long-snapper with Colts from 1993-99 and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham served with Colts 1982-84.
Colts Interim Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians(on Calvin Johnson being big, fast and strong):
"He's all of the above. When we went to his workout when he was coming out, you had seen a little bit of each in a different guy. Plaxico (Burress) was big, some guys are fast, Steve Smith's got great hands. This guy has got it all. He truly has it all, and he's got an unbelievable work ethic. I think the most impressive thing for me was watching him block at Georgia Tech. They didn't throw the ball that much, and he was a devastating blocker for them. Just watching him grow as a wide receiver now speaks volumes for his work ethic."
Colts Interim Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians(on Lions defensive line):
"Big, strong, active and deep. They're not just two guys, it's six guys. The three interior guys are as good as they get – high draft picks, big and active, disruptive in the middle. Their edge rushers, (Kyle) Vanden Bosch I've respected for years with his motor, and Cliff Avril is a very slippery outside pass rusher. (Willie) Young, they've got a great defensive line. I think when you look back at Jim (Schwartz), coming from Tennessee, they always had a fantastic defensive line down there. That's just their history, and they've built this franchise around a really, really good one."
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck(on importance of playing close games well):
"Obviously, it's nice to have played in close games but in our case, it's nice to have won some of those. I know they're a bunch better team than their record indicates. We don't look at that as a true measure of how good they are. But yeah, I think it's always nice to have some experience maybe winning a game in a two-minute drive. It's always nice to have Adam Vinatieri in your locker room. But yeah, a good experience."
Colts outside linebacker Dwight Freeney(on if ever seen a tighter locker room):
"Unfortunately, circumstances causes this. The good thing about it, is it causes everybody to get together and that's very important. Guys, we're real close this year than most years around here, even though historically we've had a close knit team. That's kind of been the culture of the Colts around here. Obviously, unfortunate circumstances but it brings guys together."
Lions Head Coach Jim Schwartz(on if still keeps the playoffs as a possibility):
"I think that's been one of the things that's been on our, I don't know what you'd call it, radar or whatever the entire season. Even back in training camp people were talking about the playoffs. I'm not talking about players, people in the media, fans, people around the league. You say, 'Hey all we have to do is go out and compete from week to week and leave the other stuff for the end of the season when that stuff happens.' I think we have to be able to stay in the moment, you have to be able to do that in this league. The last two Super Bowl champs were 9-7 at the end of the season. Both of them were 7-7 with two weeks to go. I think that it's not always as clear cut as everybody would like it to be. This league has always rewarded people who are resilient and play until the very end. The only game we have this week is the Colts, and I think that's the only thing we can concentrate on. If we do a good job with that, then we go to the next week."
Lions Head Coach Jim Schwartz(on impressions of Reggie Wayne):
"He's a great receiver and he's been that way for a long period of time, he's stood the test of time. I remember when he came into the league as a rookie we practiced against him down in Nashville. He was trying to find his feet, he was playing some slot receiver and sort of working through some rookie stuff, but he worked through that stuff pretty quickly and I think that he has been a consistent receiver for a long period of time. There's a lot of respect in this league for guys that are consistent and do it year in and year out. He's been a Pro Bowl player, he's their leading receiver this year. He's done a good job of transitioning between the Peyton Manning era."
Lions Head Coach Jim Schwartz(on Andrew Luck through the first 11 games):
"He's obviously been impressive, there's a reason he was drafted number one overall. He's done a really good job of keeping them in every game. He's making a lot of big plays down the field. He's very, very strong in the pocket, he's a scrambler, he can make yards with scrambling. He's done a good job of making good decisions. I think if you look at his turnovers and things like that, a lot of them have come when they're on the wrong side of the score and he's trying to catch back up in the game and that happens to just about any quarterback. It doesn't matter who you are, if you're down a bunch of scores and you're trying to come back, you have to take some chances. When you watch him on the tape, he obviously has command of what they're doing on offense. He has command of what defenses are trying to do, he makes good decisions. Very strong in the pocket, he steps up probably stronger than most quarterbacks in the NFL and he's only a rookie."
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson(on assessing himself):
"Just wanting to be a leader by example on the field. That's the main thing I want to do when I step on the field every day. Just be out there so my teammates see me working and they don't have any choice but to work. Some of the best guys on the team are out there busting their butt."
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson(on atmosphere in Lions locker room):
"Guys are still pushing. Guys are still working their butts off. That hasn't changed here in practice or anything like that. That's the thing I like about what's going on right now. Even though we are not where we thought we should be at right now, at this point of the season, guys are still working their butts off."