INDIANAPOLIS – The grind of the NFL season is alive and well for all 32 teams.
When Colts players leave the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center after a day of preparations this time of year, the sun is long gone.
Temperatures are now hovering around freezing and the arrival of snow is just a matter of time at this point in the year.
Goal No. 1 is crossed off the list though for the Colts and aspirations of playing into January are now officially a reality.
At Chuck Pagano's press conference earlier this week, the head coach broke down the outlook for his team, winners of four straight, in the final two games of the regular season.
The first of two road trips comes Sunday afternoon with the 10-4 Cowboys.
"We know what kind of team they have, and what kind of players they have. We've got to go on the road and play a darn good football team," Pagano said.
"We want to play better. Can we play better? Yeah, we can play better. Again, just because we're sitting where we're sitting doesn't mean that we're going to take our foot off the gas."
Here were three main takeaways from Pagano's message down the stretch:On the run defense the past couple of weeks:
"They've stopped some good runners and (Sunday) was no exception. We all know what a great back (Houston running back) Arian Foster is and what he's done in the past. We've got a prideful group over there and they're playing well. They're playing together, all 11 guys doing their job, not trying to do too much, which tends to get you in trouble. Front seven working together, tackling well, effort's been there. All those things add up to being able to play good run defense and we're going to have to play it again obviously this week.
"We're going to face a great runner in DeMarco Murray. I understand that he has a hand injury and possibly a broken bone; I don't know. I fully expect him to be out there and that's how we'll prepare, but the run defense has been outstanding."
Bowen's Analysis: After a disappointing performance a month ago in the run defense department, the Colts have taken it personally to right that wrong. On Sunday, the Colts limited Arian Foster to his second smallest yards per carry output since September. In this four-game winning streak, the Colts held 1,000-yard rusher Alfred Morris to his smallest rushing total in over a month. The task this week in the ground game department is the greatest challenge the Colts will see in 2014. Dallas has built their offensive line the last four years with three first-round picks in front of running back DeMarco Murray. It's paid massive dividends with Murray challenging some historic NFL records in producing an NFL-best 38 percent of the Cowboys offense.
On getting off to better starts:
"I think we'd be sticking our head in the sand, big pink elephant in the middle of the room that we're all avoiding and we don't want to talk about. I think we'd be foolish not to say that it's not (a problem).
"We're going to talk about it and we're going to address it. We don't shy away from anything with ourselves, with our staff and with our players. We're going to keep grinding and keep looking at ways to improve, trying to look for the reasons why. We've done things in the past. We should be able to do those same things. We'll keep looking for answers and try to get it fixed."
Bowen's Analysis: Early on in 2014, fast starts were a staple of the Colts getting off to a 5-2 record out of the gate. However, the Colts offense has only produced one opening quarter touchdown since Week Six. The defense continues to play solid football, especially early on in games. Heading into Week 16, the Colts defense has given up just two first quarter touchdowns all season long. It's looking like the Colts will have to make at least one road trip come January, in order to reach their ultimate goal, so fast starts in the future will be at a premium in trying to knock off the AFC's elite.
On the possibility of resting players down the stretch:
"Anybody who's got some nagging injuries and got some things going on that they've been fighting through, if we talk to our doctors and between our doctors and our trainers and our coaching staff, if we feel like somebody needs some time to mend… I mean, we're going to play 16 games, and we're going to prepare to try to go win this football game. Forget being in the playoffs or not, that's just our mindset. That's how we roll. So if a guy needs some time because he's injured and he needs some time to heal up, then we'll make that decision whatever's best for the player, whatever's best for the team, all that stuff."
Bowen's Analysis:With at least one win in the last two weeks of the regular season, the Colts will in all likelihood be the AFC's No. 3 seed in the playoffs. The Colts have a slim chance of still earning a bye but they would need either Denver and/or New England to drop their final two games. Chuck Pagano was asked the question of rest several times on Monday and he made it clear that a 16-game schedule was what this team signed up for and that's what they will play. However, Pagano isn't going to ignore players that might benefit from a week off due to nagging injuries. Right now, the Colts look pretty healthy for this time of the year with T.Y. Hilton's hamstring being the major question mark heading into Sunday.