INDIANAPOLIS – A bounce back win last Sunday against Tennessee has put the Colts close to a division title.
Sunday at Cincinnati could be that day, but it comes against an 8-4 foe that has won six-of-eight, is 5-0 at home and is battling for playoff inclusion, too.
The anticipated rumble in the Jungle could be waged in inclement conditions.
It is a big day for two teams that made the playoffs last year, but who exited in the Wild Card Round. Both have larger designs for this year, and Sunday could play a role in how things evolve.
The Colts want to punch their playoff ticket, and here are SEVEN VICTORY KEYS:
EARLY ADVANTAGE – This comes on two fronts. Last week was the first time in five games the Colts were ahead in the first half. Early deficits in those other four games marred the club's chances twice, while the Colts escaped twice with victories. Getting up early allows the offense to attack as it chooses. If inclement conditions occur, scoring early always is a good tonic. Only six Colts remain from the last snow game (2009 season at Buffalo), so seeing the team perform in tough conditions has not been a part of recent history.
HAVE GREEN LIGHT IN RED ZONE – The most proficient team through eight games at scoring in the red zone (25-for-25) has tailed a bit in the last four games and now ranks tied for 10th with 34 scores (21 TDs) in 38 trips. The TD percentage has dipped from 60 to 55 percent during that span. A one-for-five performance against St. Louis was obscured by a large deficit and a desperate approach to recover. Last week, the Colts needed five Adam Vinatieri FGs when drives stalled. His first, third and fifth kicks re-established leads in a 22-14 win, but better closing prowess deep is essential.
COME IN BUNCHES – Last week's game tilted in large part because of takeaways – four, a season-high. The club had not pirated a pass in 147 opposing throws, but got three last week. Now that a tight pickle is out of the jar, get some more. Robert Mathis was vintage with a 41st career strip-sack, and the Colts had multiple takeaways for the first time in five games. Indianapolis started the season with multiple takeaways in four-of-five outings (4-1 record). Sometimes teams get on a roll when players are healthy. A takeaway roll usually equates to winning.
STILL THERE – While a win can hide some ills, the club's three-for-14 third-down conversion rate last Sunday kept eyes trained on being better. The Colts were two-for-nine in the first half against Tennessee and now are five-for-34 in the first half of the last five games. The lone second-half conversion was a 24-yard keeper by Andrew Luck. Needing to gain an average of nearly 10 yards on the 14 tries last week was an onerous task. Early-down success remains a must-do thing for the offense.
BUILT FOR LATE SEASON – Pep Hamilton said this week that putting players in positions to succeed remains a priority either through play calls, tempo or other factors. He also stressed again that rushing proficiency, particularly late in games and in the season, is a bedrock principle for the club. It helped produce key early-season wins. It did so in a sweep of Tennessee. He feels wearing opponents down and using the hammer late is a strength of the attack. With the line nicked up but with others who can help in jumbo sets, let's have this come into play on Sunday. It could be effective in the possible weather elements. Indianapolis is 7-1 this year when topping 100 rushing yards.
LAW FIRM AND GIO – A push for a balanced attack has helped the Bengals rush for 150 yards nine times in the Andy Dalton era. It has produced an 8-1 record, including last week's win at San Diego. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard combined for 149 of the club's 164 yards, with Cincinnati netting 101 on the ground in the second half when they controlled the ball almost 19 minutes. Winning December football often takes this form, and one gets the impression this could be Sunday's approach. Six times this year the Colts have allowed 140-plus yards in a game. Six of the last eight opponents have rushed at least 30 times, each time topping 30 minutes possession time and but once not reaching a 4.0 average. Expect Cincinnati to probe some.
HOLD THE FORT, MIX IT UP – Last week, Luck was hit seven times and sacked on five occasions. Cincinnati has 36 sacks and has a defensive front seven that is active and well-coached by Mike Zimmer. A healthy run-pass mix can keep a talented linebacking corps honest.
Staying out of untenable third-down situations could blunt a defense that can be tricky on third downs.
QUOTE TO NOTE(Robert Mathis on how often guys talk about what's at stake)
"I think that message has been delivered pretty clear that we're playing to go to New York in February. That's the bottom line. Nothing else matters really right now. The way to get there is to win games. You have to win out. Not just one game, but every game you play. Every game means that much more now."