One Big Storyline
Fresh legs. Fresh minds.
Coming off the NFL latest's possible bye week (Week 14) for a second straight season, the Indianapolis Colts feel refreshed and refocused heading into Saturday's road matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.
At 4-8-1, the Colts have plenty to play for over the final four games of the season, and could play the role of spoiler — or, at least the role of "delayer" — against a Vikings team that, at 10-3, simply needs a win to claim its first NFC North Division title since 2017, but is shaken a bit coming off a loss last week to the upstart Detroit Lions.
"Obviously, a good week to recharge a little bit, get a little break," Colts interim head coach Jeff Saturday said of the bye week and the challenge ahead. "Looking forward to the next four weeks. Big week for us against Minnesota, going up there. I know they're trying to clinch and clinch their division. Obviously, didn't get it done against Detroit. So, they'll be gunning to close this thing out and we've got to go up there and play our best ball. So, looking forward to it."
The Colts on Saturday will hope to avoid a recent trend against some of the best teams the NFC has to offer this season — a fourth-quarter collapse.
Back in Week 11 at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indy outscored the Philadelphia Eagles — who own the NFL's best record at 12-1 — 13-3 heading into the fourth quarter. But Jalen Hurts & Co. fought back with a 14-3 run over the final quarter to fly home with a narrow 17-16 victory.
Then, in Week 13, the Colts' final game before the bye week, Indy was step-for-step on the road against the now 10-3 Dallas Cowboys, with just a two-point deficit through three quarters. What developed from there — 33 unanswered points by the Cowboys — was the type of fourth-quarter onslaught that has rarely been seen in the NFL.
It's not that the Colts don't emphasize finishing games; in fact, it's been their M.O. in their four wins this season. But against some of the best the NFL has to offer — and the Vikings certainly fall into that category — Indy by now has plenty of time to digest how to go about not only playing with the top teams, but finishing them off, as well.
"We talked about the focus obviously after the Bye Week. Don't be denied what you should be doing," Saturday said. "That means go take advantage of all the matchups that you have. So, I've challenged each guy individually – just talked about where we need to be, what we need to see from each guy in particular and the progress we want to see being made. Again, we've made some progress.
"Obviously, the Dallas game was the last one we had. That's an awful taste in your mouth, the way we finished that game. We have to continue to get better in certain areas and everybody has a job they have to go get better at. Job one is beating Minnesota. You've got a four-game season. When I look at this, we're very capable of winning all four, but you have to start in Minnesota. They've got a lot to play for, playing for the division at their place, getting beat by Detroit. Like I said, nobody feels sorry for you in this league. They're going to come at you full tilt so expect their best, and then go show them what your best looks like."n
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Matt Ryan to remain starter. Saturday told reporters on Monday that after taking advantage of the bye week to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the entire team, the Colts will stick with Matt Ryan as their starting quarterback heading into the post-bye Vikings matchup.
The veteran Ryan has had his shares of ups and downs in his first season with the Colts in 2022, showcasing the true meaning of his "Matty Ice" nickname by helping lead Indy to last-minute victories against the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 6), and guiding five fourth-quarter comebacks in all, second most in the league. But Ryan has also struggled with taking care of the football, as evidenced by his league-leading 13 interceptions and 14 fumbles.
Saturday said Ryan certainly takes his share of the blame for his struggles, but the interim head coach also acknowledges, and the film backed him up, that many of the issues on those particular plays — from botched protections up front, to pass-catchers in the wrong position, and more — should not be ignored, either.
"I think the problem is, from the outside looking in, you want to attribute all those to one guy," Saturday said. "And if I could, that would be an easy position to change and all of a sudden now you think you've made the team — all of a sudden we got no warts. But that's not the case. I feel like Matt has continued to give us the best chance. And unfortunately we keep turning the ball over but it's not just on him, it's on a number of different guys."
The good news for Ryan and the Colts' offense? The Vikings' defense is ranked 32nd — dead last — in the NFL in total yards allowed. They've allowed the most passing yards, most net yards per pass attempt, the second most pass attempts, and their opponents average 36.1 yards per offensive drive — third worst in the league.
In seven career games against Minnesota, Ryan has averaged 253 passing yards and two touchdowns to less than one interception per contest. His last game against the Vikings in 2020 was a masterpiece: 30-of-40 passing for 371 yards with four touchdowns to zero picks for a quarterback rating of 136.6 in a 40-23 blowout victory.
The way the Colts' defense has come to play in most games this season, however, the team doesn't necessarily need that 2020 version of Matt Ryan on Saturday against the Vikings. But if he can decisive, limit the turnovers, get the ball into playmakers' hands — and, as noted below, perhaps see if Jonathan Taylor wants to take over on the ground — then Indy should have a shot.
"There's work that we're going to have to do there," Ryan said this week. "it'll be a good challenge for us and it's a great place to play. I've been in the NFC for a long time playing up there a lot. It's a great atmosphere and a fun spot to go win."
Two words: Justin. Jefferson. The argument can easily be made that Justin Jefferson is off to one of the best starts to a career by a wide receiver in NFL history. As he enters the last four games of his third NFL season, his 98.2 receiving-yards-per-game average ranks first in NFL history.
In second place? Julio Jones at 89 yards per game. Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson sits in third place at 86.1.
Point being: Jefferson has been quite the menace for opposing NFL defenses, and on the Colts' side, they already know what's coming — now it's on them to try to stop it.
"A guy like Jefferson — he's a tremendous player," Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "He's extremely talented. He can get 200 yards on you in a hurry. They find ways, creative ways, of getting him the ball. He's a great route runner. He catches the short ball and can turn that into big gains. The deep ball — he's got that same ball skills and athleticism that you see in great wide receivers."
Jefferson this season leads the NFL with 1,500 receiving yards, and is right up there in receptions (99), to go along with six touchdowns.
Jonathan Taylor back on track? After setting the NFL on fire in 2021 — winning the league rushing title by a mile and breaking the Colts' single-season records in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns — those who don't closely follow the Colts might look at Taylor's 2022 season and wonder where all that pizazz went.
Truthfully, Taylor has displayed on multiple occasions this season that the 2021 magic is still in him. But lingering injuries (he's missed three full games this year), a couple untimely fumbles and some major shuffles up front along the offensive line have resulted in Taylor "only" ranking 10th in the NFL in rushing to this point of the season (861 yards).
But since returning from an injury that caused him to miss the Week 9 game against the New England Patriots, Taylor has certainly seemed to return to form. He has 20-plus carries and 80-plus rushing yards in those four games — tied for the longest active such streak in the NFL with the Las Vegas Raiders' Josh Jacobs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Now he's back on pace, with good health, to rack up about 1,200 rushing yards on the year, which would put him extremely close to breaking into the top-10 list of the most rushing yards by a running back in their first three seasons in NFL history.
"Yeah, definitely felt like we've had more momentum in the run game, which ultimately is obviously what we want to pride ourselves on, what we want to find our identity in. I've felt like we've had a little momentum, especially here and there in certain games." Colts pass game specialist/assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier said this week. "Definitely think there's places that we can still get better, but I think like you said, since he's come back the second time, we've made some improvements in some certain areas that we needed to and feel good about the trajectory of where we're going with that. Want to continue to do that throughout the last four weeks, but definitely feel good about where we're at."
Non-Sunday Cousins. Statistically, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league since he won the starting job with his first team, now the Washington Commanders, in 2015, and certainly has maintained that production since signing with the Vikings in 2018. This season he has 3,358 passing yards with 20 touchdowns to nine interceptions for a QB rating of 91.2.
But much of Cousins' success has come on games played on Sunday. This matchup is being played on Saturday, which is a good opportunity to remind folks that, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cousins has an 8-17 (.320) record in his career when playing games on any day other than Sunday, including the playoffs — tied for the second-worst such winning percentage among qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL since 1970.
For reference, Matt Ryan is 18-17 (.514) in non-Sunday starts, including the playoffs. But I think it's also fair to mention: "QB wins" is not exactly a great stat to rely upon too much, and we're just having a little fun here.
Playing spoiler. At 4-8-1, with four games left, the Colts still have life in the AFC playoff picture. According to FiveThirtyEight, Indy enters Saturday's game with a three-percent chance of making the postseason, and two-percent chance of winning the AFC South Division.
Now, a loss to the Vikings on Saturday, coupled some other results around the league — including a road win or tie by the Tennessee Titans against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday — and Indy will have been officially eliminated from postseason contention.
On the other side of the coin, a near-flawless finish to the season by the Colts, coupled with an equally bad finish for the Titans, and things could start to get interesting again.
But before we start receiving Jim Mora "Playoffs?!" memes (definitely don't send them to email@example.com), you can rest assured that whether the playoffs are in the picture or not, this team, led by Jeff Saturday, is going to try to make some noise one way or another over these final four games. And they can be a major pest to the Vikings on Saturday if they're able to accomplish that feat.
The Vikings, as mentioned before, need a victory over the Colts Saturday to claim their first NFC North Division title since 2017. They'll be playing in front of their home fans, and one can imagine the organization will be eager for the opportunity to be selling official division champions gear to a rabid fanbase in a celebratory (and generous) mood on their way out of the stadium.
Saturday and his squad, meanwhile, will be doing everything they can to delay that celebration — and keep those boxes of apparel at bay — for at least another week.