INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts improved to 8-6 on the season Sunday with their 23-0 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Last week, Indianapolis snapped the Houston Texans' nine-game win streak, and on Sunday, the Colts, who continue making a late-season push for a playoff spot, snapped the Cowboys' five-game win streak, proving once again they're a team that can be very dangerous on any given week.
"That was a complete football game," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "The guys played hard. We talked about it all week long and we talked about 1-0 (and) getting better every week. We just felt that this had to be our best game of the year and wanted to do that. The guys really did that in all three phases – complete football."
Here are the FIVE THINGS LEARNED from Sunday's victory over the Cowboys:
• SHUTOUT: The Cowboys came into Sunday's game with one of the hottest offenses in football. Not only do they feature the league's top running back in Ezekiel Elliott, but the unit has been really energized since the midseason acquisition of wide receiver Amari Cooper from the Oakland Raiders. Both Elliott and Cooper were absolutely shut down by the Indy defense on Sunday, however. Elliott, the league's leading rusher, had some early success, but finished with 18 carries for 87 yards; he was also stuffed on a key 4th-and-1 play from the Indy 3-yard line early in the second quarter. Cooper, meanwhile, had compiled the most receiving yards (642), first downs (23) and receiving touchdowns (six) in the NFL in his six games since coming over to Dallas entering the Colts game; he left Indy with four receptions for 32 yards. The Colts earned their first shutout since the 2014 season, while the Cowboys were shut out for the first time since 2003. "It says a lot about our defensive performance," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "What a great job. The fourth down stop down close to the goal line early on in the game – that was huge. All day they came up big. They came up really, really big. The Cowboys put some long drives together, and to not get points out of those is demoralizing for an offense."
• GROUND GAME: As impressive as the Cowboys' offense has been in recent weeks, their defense has really been their calling card the entire season, as they've fought and clawed their way to the top of the NFC East Division standings. Dallas had been solid against the pass — they ranked ninth in passing yards per game allowed — but their calling card came up front against the run game, as they entered Sunday's game ranked first in the NFL in yards-per-carry allowed (3.62). So what did the Colts do? They ran it down the Cowboys' throats. With yet another strong group performance by the offensive line, Indianapolis saw top running back Marlon Mack break free carry after carry, and he finished with another career day: 27 carries for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Indy, in all, ran the ball 39 times for 178 yards for a 4.6 yards-per-carry average, showing once again that while the offense will always rely heavily on Andrew Luck — who still had a solid, efficient throwing performance on Sunday — the equation of a solid rushing performance plus stout defensive play is oftentimes what wins ballgames in December. "We talked about this week that we have to fight to have no mental lapses," Reich said about the blueprint for his team in December. "It's always a physical grind, but a lot of times what happens is it is the mental grind that wears guys down. So we really wanted to concentrate on the fundamentals and technique – don't wear down on that stuff, don't get bored with it, stay focused, stay disciplined on the little things and executing playing with leverage. On both sides of the ball, we did that today."
• LEONARD SHINES (AGAIN): Sunday's game featured two of the league's top candidates for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award in Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. While both players, obviously, would never be on the field at the same time, this game was a good opportunity for them to really showcase their value to their respective defensive units. Vander Esch ended up having a solid afternoon with eight total tackles, but Leonard was far and away the more impressive player on Sunday. He finished with a game-high-tying 11 tackles (nine solo stops), with one tackle for loss, as well as a recovery on a Colts blocked field goal in the first quarter. But perhaps where Leonard really set himself apart on Sunday was in coverage, as he knocked down two key Dak Prescott pass attempts, both to the shifty Cole Beasley — one of which was on 4th and 1 from the Indianapolis 39-yard line to start the fourth quarter. This is no knock against Vander Esch, but Leonard has proven week after week that he is in a different class for everything he brings to the table from the WILL linebacker position, and while Derwin James and Bradley Chubb might have something to say about it by the end of the season, it would be a crime if Leonard, who continues to lead the league in tackles and will threaten the NFL's rookie record for stops, doesn't take home that hardware.
• PLAYOFF PICTURE: The good news for the Colts is the win against the Cowboys keeps their playoff hopes very much alive heading into Week 16. But the team will still need some outside help if it wants to earn the sixth seed as the second Wild Card team in the AFC. The Steelers remain atop the AFC North Division standings after their win over the New England Patriots Sunday night, while the Ravens are just a half-game back of Pittsburgh after their win on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So, as of now, the Ravens are locked into that sixth seed due to tiebreakers. If the Colts can win out their final two games against the New York Giants and the Tennessee Titans (who also won on Sunday against the Giants to move to 8-6), then they'll need either the Steelers (at the Saints/vs. the Bengals) or the Ravens (at the Chargers/vs. the Browns) to lose at least one game the rest of the way, and then Indy will officially be in that sixth spot and will be making its first postseason appearance since the 2014 season. And, in the "so you're saying there's a chance" category, the Colts still are mathematically alive in the race for the AFC South Division title. But the Houston Texans, who defeated the New York Jets on Saturday, can't win another ballgame the rest of the season; they've got the frisky Philadelphia Eagles and the Jacksonville Jaguars to wrap things up.
• NOTES OF INTEREST:
— Andrew Luck now has over 23,000 passing yards in his career and joins Matt Stafford as the only players to reach that milestone in 84 career games.
— Marlon Mack is just the third player in franchise history to have multiple games with 125 or more rushing yards and two rushings touchdowns in a single season joining Eric Dickerson (1987) and Edgerrin James (1999 & 2005).
— Since Week 10, T.Y. Hilton, who had five receptions for 85 yards on Sunday, leads the league in receiving with 718 yards.
— The Colts' defense held the Cowboys to one-of-five on third down for a 20 percent conversion rate. The last time the Colts held an opponent to one-of-five or worse on fourth down was Dec. 4, 2005, versus Tennessee.