Colts at Cincinnati
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM
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They're saying the right things, professing confidence, promising focus. But the Indianapolis Colts must realize they cannot get blown out again.
It could happen at Cincinnati on Sunday. The Bengals are better than the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals and those teams blasted the Colts. The Colts won't say it, but there has to be some trepidation going in.
The season won't end if they get smeared. In fact, the Colts could lose by 30 points and clinch the AFC South on their way home if Tennessee loses as expected in the late afternoon game at Denver.
A consensus theme among the media is the 8-4 Colts vs. the 8-4 Bengals is a battle for the AFC's No.3 seed.
I see it as a battle for where the Colts go from here, and it means less whether they win or lose than whether they prove they can again go toe-to-toe with a talented team.
The Colts cannot afford their third lopsided loss in five games. That would signal a trend.
“You just want to play your best ball and get on a roll,” Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. “Been there in '06, hit the switch and the team that plays the best in December and January is the team that normally goes furthest in the playoffs.”
You can't argue with Mathis, even if you were brave enough to do so. Now is the time to get a roll going if the Colts have realistic hopes of a playoff run.
Here's the problem: Nothing the Colts have done since beating Denver on Oct. 20 has indicated they have what it takes for a late-season run.
The offense is depleted and looks it, and the fact new starters were in place last week reveals a unit without continuity. The defense has had some nicks and bruises, but is a much healthier side of the ball, yet it has been erratic, alternating impressive plays with weak coverage and poor tackling.
If the Colts are going to rest their hopes on anything, it might be in the fact the NFL fortunes change so rapidly. One big-time performance can turn a season around.
“December football is, as you know, very important,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Again, these guys have done a great job of putting themselves in position, being relevant, being in the conversation. We're not there yet. We need a victory. We're not counting on anybody else at this point. We control our own destiny.”
The Colts will again start Donald Brown at running back over Trent Richardson. They are likely to show more of rookie Da'Rick Rogers at wide receiver. They're unveiling former rugby player Daniel Adongo on special teams.
Yet this is the point of the season where there aren't a lot of significant changes and alterations that can be made. The Ravens fired then-offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late last season, replacing him with former Colts coach Jim Caldwell. That was a bold move that worked, since the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. I don't expect that type of drastic change for the Colts.
Cincinnati could easily be 10-2 or 9-3; they've been in three overtime games and lost two of them. In every significant statistical category (scoring, points allowed, rushing offense, passing offense, rushing defense, passing defense), the Bengals rank ahead of the Colts.
The Colts (or more accurately, an earlier version of the Colts) have more glamorous wins over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos, but the Bengals have one over the Patriots. Some of the Colts' potential defensive weaknesses (a tendency to give up big pass plays; vulnerability to the run) could be exploited by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. The loss of Colts defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois will be a detriment. It remains to be seen if cornerback Greg Toler can return to the field.
It's imperative the Colts get something moving early on offense, that they find a way to convert on third downs (they've been bad, in part because of too many third-and-longs) and that they show enough of a fight that the Bengals don't get on an offensive roll.
“We realize, one, we've got to win games to make it to the playoffs,” Luck said. “And then also you hope to sort of, not that the ship is in the wrong direction, but iron out the kinks, and we know we've got a chance to do that.”
This game seems to be about the No.3 seed to a lot of analysts, and that could prove to be true.
I think that's looking too far ahead for the Colts. They need to prove, if for nothing but their own state of mind, that they can compete against a good team again.