Whichever team emerges from Lucas Oil Stadium with a win on Saturday – either the Colts or Pittsburgh Steelers – will be in a strong position to make the playoffs.
And whichever team leaves downtown Indianapolis with a loss will have plenty of work to do to keep their postseason hopes alive.
Those are the stakes for when the Colts kick off against the Steelers at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. It's not a must-win game just yet, but it's about as close to one as you can get in the middle of December. Expect a playoff-like atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium for a game the players on the field are treating like one.
"We've got the opportunity to control our own destiny – it's a playoff game, you know what I mean?" defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "That's how you've got to approach this week. Each and every week on out is critical to if we are going to make the playoffs or not. I'm treating this week as a playoff week. I feel like everybody is on the same page."
The Steelers are coming off consecutive home defeats to 10-loss teams (Arizona, New England), while the Colts' four-game winning streak was snapped with a 34-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. But entering Week 15, the Steelers are sixth in the AFC standings while the Colts are seventh, with both sides among a muddy group of six teams with a 7-6 record.
"It's a great opportunity," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "It's one that you look forward to all season, all offseason. Back at home in Lucas Oil against a great opponent, a great coach. I know they'll be disciplined. I know they'll be physical. Type of battle that you're always looking forward to so I'm thankful for the challenge."
While the Steelers have slipped the last two weeks, no one inside the walls of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center took them lightly over the last few days. Notably, both members one of the league's top edge-rushing duos – T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith – cleared concussion protocol and will play on Saturday.
The Colts haven't beat the Steelers since 2008 and are 6-21 all-time against Pittsburgh. But that doesn't matter as much to a team with a new head coach – Shane Steichen has never beat or lost the Steelers, after all. It might matter, though, given the guy who's been on the opposing sideline for Pittsburgh's eight consecutive wins over the Colts: Mike Tomlin.
And it's less about the Colts and more about the remarkably consistent success Tomlin has built in Pittsburgh. Since Tomlin took over as head coach in 2006, the Steelers have never finished under .500.
"It's incredible," Steichen said. "What he's done throughout his career, getting those guys ready to play every single week. Obviously, he's got them ready. They're prepared. They play hard every week. Obviously, I'm sure he's got a great message for those guys every week. It's impressive to see."
The Steelers – just like every team in the AFC wild card race except the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and, pending C.J. Stroud's status in the concussion protocol, Houston Texans – are tasked with winning critical games with a backup quarterback. Starter Kenny Pickett sustained an ankle injury against the Cardinals that held him out of Pittsburgh's loss to the Patriots and will sideline him again this weekend, meaning 2017 No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky will start on Saturday.
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"He's been in this league, he's been in a few systems," Franklin, who recorded his first career interception off Trubisky in a 2021 game against the Buffalo Bills, said. "They trust him with the ball. They trust him to be the guy. We just have to take care of him. They still have dangerous weapons on the outside in (George) Pickens and Diontae (Johnson). Obviously, they have a great run game that he'll be playing off of too. We just have to be able to stop that."
The Colts will be cornerback JuJu Brents back for Saturday's game, with the 2023 second-round pick playing for the first time since sustaining a quad injury in Week 7.
Offensively, the Colts will have to account for Watt (14 sacks) and Highsmith (six sacks) without right tackle Braden Smith, who will miss his second consecutive game with a knee injury. Rookie Blake Freeland will start his eighth game of the season on Saturday.
"Blake has got a great head on his shoulders, he's attacking the challenge that's presented every week," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. "Every week is a new week, a new challenge with who's across the ball from you and how they like to rush and how they like to play different run blocks and things like that. We're excited about the trajectory and the development of Blake Freeland and looking for a little bit more of it. Excited for the direction he's headed, he's doing a nice job working during the week to get better and that's showing up on game day. We've got to all keep improving, Blake included, but we're pleased with the trajectory."
All this sets up for the Colts to expect a tight, physical game on Saturday – one that'll be determined by which team executes and avoids self-inflicted mistakes the best. Lucas Oil Stadium, arguably, hasn't hosted an NFL game this big since the Colts topped the Patriots in Week 15 of the 2021 season. The Colts won that one, then beat the Cardinals, then still missed out on the playoffs.
The lesson, then, is to accept the magnitude of Saturday's game – but know winning it doesn't guarantee anything.
"I think everyone kind of knows," Steichen said. "We've still got four games left and to me, this is another game but we know the importance of it. We've got to go out and execute, play together and play for each other – that's really the message. We're at home, we got our home crowd, our guys are excited and we're ready for the opportunity."