The Colts re-convened at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center on Wednesday still holding a playoff spot, and (mostly) controlling their postseason destiny – even after losing by 19 points on Christmas Eve to the Atlanta Falcons.
And as players began preparing for Week 17's home date with the Las Vegas Raiders, they took a hard look in the mirror to figure out what went wrong last week and how to avoid another defeat down the stretch with little margin for error.
"People really just looked within themselves — how did I approach the week, how did I approach every single rep and knowing, did I do everything possible in my power because you only have a limited amount of opportunities," running back Jonathan Taylor said. "And then once they start to dwindle — especially when you have an opportunity to do something special that hasn't been done in a little bit, it's, we need to figure out a way in order to make that happen. Whatever it takes."
The Colts know they need to find consistency after oscillating between big wins (over the Titans and Steelers) and three-score losses (to the Bengals and Falcons) in December. And a Week 16 postgame message from quarterback Gardner Minshew II hit at that point: Don't take this opportunity to make the playoffs for granted, and don't worry about scoreboard watching or doing schedule math.
"Let's just take advantage of these games," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "We can't control what happened before, it already happened. Highs and lows, we don't let our successes or our failures affect us too much. We just take everything in stride and I think we've done a good job of doing that. We just gotta keep building, keep trying to get this win."
Ahead of the Colts in Week 17 are the resurgent Las Vegas Raiders, who are 4-3 since firing Josh McDaniels and tapping Antonio Pierce as interim head coach. The Raiders are 7-8 and are still alive in the AFC playoff race – a strikingly similar situation to the last time Las Vegas played in Indianapolis, when under interim head coach Rich Bisaccia they needed to win out and get some help to make the postseason (they did).
And the Colts, in prepping for the Raiders, have seen Las Vegas take on the intense, physical personality of their ex-NFL-linebacker-turned-head-coach.
"They're feeding off his energy, they're playing at a high level," head coach Shane Steichen said. "You can see it by the way they are playing and they are executing well."
The Raiders' recent surge – highlighted by a Christmas day win in Kansas City – has been fueled by a defense that's gone from one of the NFL's leakiest units to one of the league's best since Pierce took over in Week 9:
|Weeks 1-8 (NFL rank)
|Weeks 9-16 (NFL rank)
|Yards per play
|Scoring drive %
|Explosive pass %
|Explosive run %
|Rush yards per play
|Rush plays w/8+ defenders in box
The Raiders' shift in run defense – from loading the box and not having much success to playing more standard/light boxes with plenty of success – has been key. And as the Raiders have stopped the run with more consistency, they've been able to cut loose the pass rushing duo of Malcolm Koonce (seven sacks) and Maxx Crosby (12.5 sacks) to keep opponents off the scoreboard.
Crosby is eighth in the NFL in sacks, fifth in total pressures (82) and first in run stops (33).
"We just need to know where he's at at all times," Taylor said. "Running backs, tight ends, we all need to know where he's at. He's a game-wrecker and we got to have answers for that because we know he's gonna play hard, so we got to play harder."
The Raiders' offense has had some wild swings, but is still managing to win games. Las Vegas went from being shut out in a 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings to scoring seven touchdowns on offense against the Los Angeles Chargers four days later – then in Week 16 became only the fifth team in the last 10 years to win a game while having under 50 net passing yards.
And the Raiders' ability to win in different ways again is a reflection of Pierce, who's fostered a certain belief in his team that's served them well in December.
"He's doing a great job," Franklin said. "You can tell they're all playing for each other, pulling for each other. It's a good test for us this upcoming Sunday."
The implications for the Colts on Sunday are both simple and complicated. A win puts the Colts in good position to make the playoffs, but would only set up a win-and-in Week 18 if the Jaguars (vs. Carolina), Bills (vs. New England) or Bengals (at Kansas City) lose.
But the Colts aren't interested in scoreboard watching this weekend. The focus is solely on what happens on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts will worry about the rest later.
"We need to finish," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "We put too much work in this season, endured a lot throughout this season with injuries, suspensions. … We have everything in front of us. We gotta take advantage of it and we gotta finish."