AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – The fact that Georgia running back Todd Gurley reportedly won’t let doctors at the NFL combine examine him should be a warning flag for the Indianapolis Colts if he’s available when they pick at No. 29 in the draft.

The news of Gurley not wanting his knee examined was reported by the NFL Network.

The Colts are in need of a running back to go with quarterback Andrew Luck after the Trent Richardson experiment turned out to be a failure. Ahmad Bradshaw is a free agent who is working his way back from a broken fibula.

The Colts haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in any game since the 2012 season.

Gurley rushed for 911 yards despite playing in only six games last season with the Bulldogs. He was suspended for four games and tore his ACL against Auburn on Nov. 15.

“The timetable is six to nine months,” Gurley said Thursday. “I got hurt in November, so I’m not really giving no timetable. I’m just trying to get back safe, but as quick as possible.”

The Colts aren’t in the position to swing and miss with their first-round pick this year because they have so many needs to address on their roster. They need help in the pass rush and at safety as well as at running back.
INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson didn’t hold any punches. They really couldn’t, actually. They’ve seen what has happened with their players, some they took a gamble on and others who they never thought would have any run-ins with the law.

Four Colts players have been arrested since Jan. 15.

A rape charge. DUI. Assault. Marijuana charges.

As one player told me, “This is not a good look for us. Trouble is not how we do things.”

He’s right.

But the Colts continue to find trouble off the field. They’ve had so many issues that it’s easy to forget that they took another step last season by reaching the AFC Championship Game.

“We’ve had some issues,” Pagano said. “I’m disappointed about those issues, and we’ve got to do better. I’ve got to do a better job. We’re trying to develop these guys to be the best they can be on the field and help us win football games, and off the field. We’ll continue to educate. It’s an ongoing process. It’s a daily process. Again, it’s disappointing that you have those types of deals, but gotta make good choices and with choices come consequences. We’ll continue to try to encourage our guys to do the thing things and make good choices.”

Pagano compared what has happened to raising three daughters. Two of his daughters, according to the coach, brought home straight 'A’s’ from school. The third daughter brought home an occasional ‘C’ and it took her some time to get things figured out. That’s how the Colts view their roster. They’ve got a roster full of good players for the most part, but there are a few who are having a difficult time getting it together.

The Colts released linebacker Andrew Jackson, who was a rookie last season, after his second DUI. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who was recently arrested for having marijuana, is a free agent. Linebacker Josh McNary’s rape case is ongoing. The same goes for linebacker D’Qwell Jackson’s assault case on a pizza delivery driver.

Bradshaw, McNary and D'Qwell Jackson’s legal issues took the Colts completely by surprise, according to several people inside the organization. Andrew Jackson was arrested for his second DUI in less than a year.

“I think the culture is a strong one; it’s a strong locker room,” Grigson said. “We have an excellent culture and very good veteran leadership. There’s also risk-reward. Do you take a flier on a guy who has very low financial risk but also loves football … the hope is always that he’ll buy into the culture that you’re presenting him, which we think is a very good habitat for players. To be at their best, to iron out some of their rough edges, and some of them have. Some of the guys we struck out on, I guess we need to do a better job in certain areas and we will. We will.”

The issue the Colts, along with every other team in the NFL, have is that they can’t keep their eye on their players once the season ends because they’re scattered across the country. Pagano and Grigson can only hope their players are mature enough to avoid getting in trouble, which obviously hasn’t been the case.

“We can’t be with them 24/7,” Pagano said. “Talk about making great choices and doing the right thing and representing the ‘shoe’ and the name on the back of their jersey and we’ll continue to do that. We’ve got to do better. I think it’s an ongoing process and it’s not easy.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano are scheduled to meet with the media at the NFL combine on Thursday.

Here's a checklist of things that will likely be discussed by Grigson and Pagano:
  • Off-the-field issues: If the 45-7 loss to the Patriots wasn't embarrassing enough, the Colts have continued to embarrass themselves off the field over the past month. It started with linebacker Josh McNary being charged with rape, linebacker Andrew Jackson arrested for a DUI, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson arrested for assault and running back Ahmad Bradshaw being charged with a misdemeanor count of possession of marijuana.
  • Richardson
    Trent Richardson: The Colts haven't officially said anything, but Richardson's days with the organization are numbered after two disappointing seasons. The Colts are expected to release him and try to recoup the $3.1 million Richardson is owed next season after having conduct and weight issues with him in 2014. Richardson was suspended for two games, including the AFC Championship Game, after missing the team's walk-through the day before the game. He also failed to make weight several weeks during the season.
  • Robert Mathis: The biggest question mark here is: Will he be ready for the start of training camp? Mathis, who tore his Achilles while working out during his four-game suspension, is out to prove he can regain his form from when he had 19.5 sacks during the 2013 season. The challenge to Mathis is to prove he can still play at a high level at the age of 34 next season.
  • Deflategate: I'm not expecting Grigson or Pagano to say much about "Deflategate," but they'll still be asked about it. In fact, I expect the two to say the matter is in the NFL's hands.
  • Safety: The Colts had safety issues the moment the AFC Championship Game ended because Pro Bowler Mike Adams is about to become a free agent and they released LaRon Landry -- which wasn't surprising -- last week. So now Indianapolis is in need of two starting safeties because it currently doesn't have any players ready to step in and start if they had to play a game today. Sergio Brown, who started eight games last season, is also a free agent.
  • Running back: Richardson is on his way out of here, Vick Ballard is coming off a torn ACL and an Achilles injury in back-to-back years, Bradshaw is coming off back-to-back years with a neck injury and broken leg and Daniel "Boom" Herron is more of a backup than a starter. Now do you see why this will be a topic of discussion for the Colts? Running backs will be talking to the media on Thursday, too.
INDIANAPOLIS - Observed and heard at the NFL combine on Wednesday:

Luck is blueprint: The road to the AFC South title will continue to go through Indianapolis as long as Andrew Luck is quarterback of the Colts. That’s not only the case because Luck is one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL, but also because the other teams in the division have quarterback issues. Blake Bortles is headed into his second season with Jacksonville. The Houston Texans are still searching for a quarterback to go with do-everything-player J.J. Watt on the other side of the ball. And Tennessee, which has the No. 2 overall pick and could draft either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, also needs a quarterback. “That’s the thing in the NFL, getting one of those quarterbacks that can make a difference like [Luck],” Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “So everybody is working to do that and we’re in a position this year where we get an opportunity to get that position settled for us. It’s an important thing.”

Don’t expect Gore: The Colts are looking for a running back to complement Luck’s arm after the Trent Richardson turned out to be a failure and there are plenty of question marks about the rest of the running backs on the roster. San Francisco running back Frank Gore, who has eight 1,000-yard seasons in his 10 seasons, is about to become a free agent. The Colts shouldn’t get their hopes up for Gore, though. “Frank, the energizer battery, just keeps on ticking,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “The last two games of the season, I think you saw what Frank still has left in the tank. Very good football player. One of the most passionate, if not the most passionate football player I’ve ever been around. Still think he’s got it in him and I know he still believes it. I talked to him the other day on the phone and we’re going to do what we can to get him back as a 49er.”

No-go Part II: This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Colts shouldn’t have their eyes set on Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, either. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said they’re hopeful that they’ll be able to sign Suh to a long-term extension. “We’re still very optimistic we’ll be able to get it done,” Mayhew said. “I think we have a lot of the essential elements that we need to get it done. … He has a coach that he likes playing for. He has teammates he likes playing with, so we have a lot of things that he’s looking for here in Detroit.” The Colts need a space-eater along the offensive line who constantly demands double-teams. Suh is that guy. But don’t expect him to be doing that for the Colts.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Matt Overton's off-the-field work at children's hospitals has almost been as big as his long-snapping ability for the Indianapolis Colts.

Overton routinely visits sick children in the hospital or will host them during training camp. He took his efforts to another level late Monday night when he went on Twitter and said he'd donate a dollar to the Ball State University marathon, which benefits Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis, for each new follower between 7:13 p.m. ET and midnight.

Overton told me that he picked up about 4,000 new followers in that time period, which means he'll donate almost $4,000 to the marathon.

"I've always been a Riley supporter, especially when colleges do their dance marathon," Overton said. "[Ball State] was trying to hit a target of $30,000 in 24 hours. Just my way to make it fun and give back to a great cause."

Overton will be emceeing part of the marathon this weekend.
A closer look at the areas the Indianapolis Colts could address in the draft. We’ll get started today with a look at the safeties.

Position of need: Safety

The need to address safety became even more important for the Colts when they released LaRon Landry on Wednesday. Pro Bowl selection Mike Adams and Sergio Brown, who split time starting with Landry, are both free agents. Indianapolis doesn’t have any players currently only the roster capable of stepping into the starting lineup if the Colts had to play a game today.

This year's draft class at safety isn't top heavy as last year, when four safeties were selected in the first round.

Three players the Colts could target in the draft:

Landon Collins, safety, Alabama: Collins is projected to be the first safety taken in the draft. The reason I’ve got him on this list is because he’s not projected to be taken until the early 20s. ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay has the Philadelphia Eagles taking him at No. 20 and Mel Kiper Jr. has the Pittsburgh Steelers taking him at No. 22. So you never know -- he could fall to the Colts at No. 29 or Indianapolis could try to move to get him if they want him that badly. Collins can play the run well and also drop back into coverage, something the Colts had hoped Landry could excel at.

Derron Smith, safety, Fresno State: Smith isn’t projected to be selected in the first round, which means that depending on how the Colts’ prioritize their needs with their first pick, they could sign a veteran (Adams, possibly) during free agency or trade for one and then draft a safety in the later rounds. Smith was a four-year starter at Fresno State. He has good enough coverage skills that he can line up opposite the slot receiver.

Damarious Randall, safety, Arizona State: Making tackles is Randall’s specialty. He had 177 tackles in his two seasons at Arizona State. He knows the proper angles to take when it comes to making plays. He also returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Randall’s size – 5-foot-11 – has been questioned by some. Some believe he might be better suited to play cornerback in the NFL. But there’s no questioning his toughness.
INDIANAPOLIS – There were signs that LaRon Landry’s time with the Indianapolis Colts would come to an end after the 2014 season – poor play was the biggest giveaway – but it became even more obvious when he was suspended in Week 5 for four games for using performance-enhancing drugs.

It took Landry, the player the Colts envisioned as the next Bob Sanders, five weeks to get his starting job back from Sergio Brown, who has spent the majority of his career as a special-teams player.

Landry’s unimpressive two seasons with the Colts officially came to an end Wednesday when general manager Ryan Grigson acknowledged the vision he had for Landry was no longer doable and released the veteran safety.

Landry was scheduled to make $3.5 million in 2015 and $4.5 million in 2016, which would have been the final season of his four-year deal with the Colts.

The Colts have had their share of off-the-field issues over the past year. Landry was part of those problems. He was released along with linebacker Andrew Jackson and offensive lineman Xavier Nixon.

Landry also preferred to do his own thing instead of fitting in with his teammates in the locker room.

While veterans typically make occasional appearances during voluntary offseason workouts, Landry showed up at the team’s practice facility only during the mandatory three-day minicamp.

That didn’t sit well with the front office and coaching staff. Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano both acknowledged last summer that it would have been good for Landry to attend at least some of the voluntary workouts. Landry ended up missing last year’s mandatory camp and part of training camp because of a groin injury.

The Colts wouldn’t have had a problem with Landry doing his own thing if he produced on the field, because the result is what counts.

Landry didn’t produce.

He preferred to go for the big hit rather than the safe tackle. The Colts' 43-22 loss to New England in the divisional playoff round after the 2013 season -- when Landry whiffed on Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount's 73-yard touchdown run after the Colts had pulled to within seven points in the fourth quarter -- is one of several plays that comes to mind.

Landry's two-season total with the Colts: 133 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two passes defended.

Landry’s release shortens up an already thin safety position for Indianapolis. Brown, Mike Adams and Colt Anderson are all free agents. Adams is at the top of the list of players the Colts should re-sign. The 33-year-old veteran made his first Pro Bowl and tied for the league lead in takeaways last season with seven (five interceptions and two fumble recoveries).

“Mike is the quarterback of the secondary back there,” Pagano said late in the season. “He does a great job as a communicator, getting guys lined up and making sure everybody is on the same page.”

The Colts will use free agency, trades and the draft to address their needs at safety.

Landry, meanwhile, will be remembered more for his selfie pictures with no shirt on, showing off his muscular physique on Twitter and Instagram -- and getting caught using performance-enhancing drugs -- than his production on the field for the Colts.

2015 Hall of Fame finalist: Tony Dungy

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
Just like receiver Marvin Harrison, former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy hopes this will be the last year he has to wait to find out if he'll be headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Dungy, Harrison and former Colts general manager Bill Polian are Hall of Fame finalists for the class of 2015.

Dungy spent 32 years in the NFL as a player and coach, as which he learned a lot from former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll.

Dungy played for Noll in 1977-78, was his defensive backs coach from 198 to 1983 and was Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator from 1984 to 1988. He was defensive backs coach of the Kansas City Chiefs from 1989 to 1991 and defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings from 1992 to 1995.

Dungy got his first head-coaching opportunity with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996 and stayed until 2001. He took over an Indianapolis team that had a franchise quarterback in Peyton Manning, Harrison, running back Edgerrin James and receiver Reggie Wayne. Dungy provided the leadership from the sideline.

The Colts won at least 10 games in all seven seasons under Dungy. They won five division titles during that same span and Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl. Dungy led the Colts and Buccaneers to the playoffs in 11 of his 13 seasons coaching those teams.

Dungy is the Colts' winningest coach with a 92-33 record. He's 22nd in NFL history with a 148-79 overall record.
INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts couldn’t even get through a full week of their offseason without having one of their players run into some legal trouble.

Linebacker Andrew Jackson, who just finished his rookie season, was arrested in Kentucky on a drunken-driving charge Friday.

Friday’s arrest was the second DUI for Jackson, a sixth-round pick last year. He had a DUI charge in Muncie, Indiana, in June 2014, according to the Indianapolis Star.

It will be interesting to see how general manager Ryan Grigson deals with Jackson's arrest.

It's the second legal issue and fourth distraction the Colts have encountered in less than two weeks.

Linebacker Josh McNary was charged with rape on Jan. 14. Running back Trent Richardson was suspended two games for missing the walk-through the day before the Colts’ AFC Championship Game. Offensive lineman Xavier Nixon missed the team plane. And now Jackson.

The Colts got to within one victory of Super Bowl, but they’ve also dealt with their fair share of issues over the past year.
  • Owner Jim Irsay arrested in March 2014 and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated. He was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 for violating the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.
  • Linebacker Robert Mathis was suspended four games for using performance-enhancing drugs in May.
  • Receiver LaVon Brazill was suspended for at least year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy for the second time. The Colts released him in July.
  • Running back Chris Rainey was released in late July for violating team rules while at training camp. He was horsing around with a fire extinguisher.
  • Safety LaRon Landry was suspended four games for using performance-enhancing drugs.
  • Receiver Da’Rick Rogers was released after he was charged with DUI in September.
The law of averages took over for the NFL's championship weekend, ensuring that the NFC and AFC titles were determined by the performance of players and coaches rather than officials. Unlike the previous two weeks, no game-changing calls impacted the Seattle Seahawks' 28-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers or the New England Patriots' 45-7 win against the Indianapolis Colts.

There is one initial tidbit to consider in advance of a Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl, which will be refereed by Bill Vinovich. (That's according to multiple reports, including one from ESPN rules analyst Jim Daopoulos.) Since Vinovich returned to the referee role in 2012 after recovering from heart problems, he has been assigned five Seahawks games. Seattle is 5-0 in those games, including three victories by at least 20 points.

For the penultimate time in the 2014 season, let's run through a handful of calls that expose and explore the gray area in NFL officiating.

[+] EnlargeJerrell Freeman and Tom Brady
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesColts linebacker Jerrell Freeman was called for roughing the passer on this hit on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter.
Play: Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman called for roughing the passer
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: With 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining in the first half, Freeman rushed as a free blitzer and knocked down Patriots quarterback Tom Brady just after he released the ball. The pass was incomplete, but Anderson penalized Freeman for roughing the passer.

On replay, you see Freeman make contact with his helmet on Brady's chest near his right shoulder. No helmet-to-helmet contact occurred and there didn't appear to be contact with the neck, either.

So what did Anderson see? It's possible he assumed helmet-to-helmet contact because Brady's head snapped back on impact. It's also not out of the question that he believed Freeman's facemask slid up Brady's chest to the neck area, which would have violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b-1) prohibiting contact between a defender's helmet with the head or neck area of a defenseless player "even if the initial contact is lower than the player's neck."

Most likely, however, Anderson would cite Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b-2), which prohibits defenders from "making forcible contact with the top/crown of the forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body." Such contact wasn't conclusive in the replay, but it's the closet thing we can get to explaining this penalty. I certainly would have supported a no-call in this instance.

Play: Seahawks offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy penalized for unnecessary roughness in live action
Referee: Tony Corrente
Analysis: With 8:02 remaining in the third quarter, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews sacked Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for a 15-yard loss. Matthews landed on top of Wilson during the play, at which point Sweezy dove into Matthews' back to peel him off the pile.

Corrente's crew correctly penalized Sweezy, but the Packers declined to enforce. Why? Because Corrente did not rule it a "dead ball foul," which would have tacked the 15-yard penalty on top of the 15-yard sack and led to a second-and-45 situation. Instead, he apparently believed Sweezy hit Matthews before Wilson was down.

Viewed on replay, it's clear Wilson's knee had touched the ground before Sweezy hit Matthews. Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 directs officials to call the ball dead and the down complete "when a runner is contacted by an opponent and touches the ground with any body part other than his hands or feet. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground."

The Packers should not have been in position to choose between declining the penalty or giving the Seahawks another first-and-15. It's fair to note, of course, that the Packers could have made the call moot had they stopped the Seahawks on an ensuing third-and-19 two plays later.

Play: Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril penalized for illegal use of hands
Referee: Corrente
Analysis: Avril had already been called once for illegal use of hands when this play took place with 11:58 remaining in the second quarter. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers' pass had fallen incomplete on third down, but the penalty on Avril gave them an automatic first down.

Illegal use of hands was a point of emphasis in 2014 and was called 242 times during the regular season. Rule 12, Section 1, Article 7 penalizes a defensive player who "thrusts his hands forward above the frame of an opponent to contact him on the neck, face or head."

When you watch the replay, you see Avril actually turn his left arm parallel to the ground and push it toward the neck of Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Avril was livid with the call, but if Corrente didn't tag him for illegal use of hands, he could have used Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12. That rule prohibits a player from "Striking, swinging at, or clubbing the neck, head or face of an opponent wit the wrist(s), arm(s), elbow(s) or hand(s)."

That’s the number of players who have played in a conference championship game – AFC or NFC – for the Colts.

So experience is not in their favor for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at New England.

The low number of participants for the Colts isn’t surprising when you take into the account that general manager Ryan Grigson basically started the roster from scratch when he took over in 2012.

Beating the Patriots is already a tough enough challenge, so the last thing the Colts can afford to do is look past New England and start thinking about playing in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. The Colts are 1-3 against the Patriots in the playoffs all-time.

“That would be the killer right there,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “Our focus is single-minded and that’s on the Patriots. If you allow yourself to, it’s like the archer that shoots for nothing; he’s got all the skill in the world. If he shoots for a brass buckle, he gets a little nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind. He may see two targets; he loses all his skill. For us to focus on winning, winning, winning and what could be, we go blind. See a little, see a lot. See a lot, see nothing.”

The focus on defense, according to defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, has to strictly be on trying to slow down Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and their running game. The Patriots have rushed for 480 yards in the past two games against the Colts.

“Don’t look ahead, please don’t,” Francois said. “Don’t look at the Super Bowl, don’t look at Arizona. Put that on the back burner. If you beat New England, then you can pay attention to it. Super Bowl should be nowhere in your mind or even in your mouth. You shouldn’t be speaking about.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts have confidence there won’t be a repeat performance by the New England Patriots' running game in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

The Colts better hope that’s the case after the Patriots rushed for 234 yards against them in the playoff matchup last season and then topped that performance by running for 246 yards back in November.

Why the optimism by the Colts?

Defensive lineman Art Jones.

“He commands double-teams,” Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding said. “He’s a huge competitor. Good pocket presence in the middle, he can push the guards into the quarterback. He just loves football. When you have a guy in the trenches that loves eating up double-teams, demands it, and if you block him one-on-one, he’s going to bull-rush to the quarterback or either run down the line and make tackles, it just makes our defensive line that much better. Having Art back in the lineup is huge for us.”

Jones missed seven games, including the previous meeting against the Patriots, this season with an ankle injury.

There’s a significant difference with the Colts stopping the run when Jones is using his 6-foot-3, 337-pound frame to take up space.

The numbers back it up:

  • 257 rushes for 1,201 yards (4.67 yards per rush)
  • 3.12 yards before contact per rush
  • 12 rushing TDs (4.7 percent of rushes)
  • First downs allowed on 26 percent of rushes
  • 165 rushes for 615 yards (3.73 yards per rush)
  • 2.15 yards before contact per rush
  • 2 rushing TDs (1.2 percent of rushes)
  • First downs allowed on 22 percent of rushes

The Colts’ run defense has been solid since the Patriots ran for 246 yards against them in November. They’ve faced Houston’s Arian Foster, Dallas’ DeMarco Murray, Denver’s C.J. Anderson and Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill and didn’t give up 100 yards rushing to any of those of players. The Colts have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past eight weeks.

“(Jones has) made a huge impact,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “It was too bad that we lost him early for that span. Right now he’s feeling really good and he’s very disruptive. He does a great job along with those other guys of forcing double-teams. He commands a double-team. He’s sideline to sideline. He’s a great effort, great energy guy, can give you some push in the middle of the pocket in the pass game. Certainly, it’s good to have Art playing at the level that he’s playing at.”

Colts at Patriots preview

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
When: 6:40 p.m. Sunday. Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts. TV: CBS

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The AFC playoffs were set up to produce another Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning duel in the AFC Championship Game, but those plans were thwarted by Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.

Brady vs. Luck? We’ve seen this script before, although not with the stakes this high.

While Brady will play in his 28th career playoff game, looking to become the first quarterback in NFL history to win 20 playoff games, this is Luck’s sixth.

Luck’s postseason progression has been impressive -- a playoff appearance as a rookie, advancing to the divisional round in his second season, and now graduating to the AFC Championship Game.

The Colts are heavy underdogs with nothing to lose after having been crunched 42-20 by the New England Patriots on Nov. 16. Will history repeat itself?

ESPN reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Mike Wells (Colts) break down the action:

Reiss: How much of a concern is Luck’s high interception total to the Colts and how, if at all, does that pertain to the playoffs?

Wells: Luck’s turnovers in the regular season were definitely a problem. It’s not a good thing when you’re mentioned in the same category as Chicago’s Jay Cutler when it comes to turnovers. Luck’s 22 turnovers -- 16 interceptions and six fumbles -- were second to Cutler. But Luck has been a completely different player in the playoffs when it comes to turnovers. He threw two interceptions against Denver on Sunday, but they were both long third-down throws, basically punts for the Colts. Of course, it’s well-documented that Luck has thrown eight interceptions in three games against the Patriots. But Luck is making smarter decisions with the football. He’s no longer forcing throws down the field. He has no problem throwing the ball underneath to a running back or to a tight end on a short route. He’s been nearly flawless in the playoffs. And it’s because of him that I think the Colts have a chance to win the game.

Talking to the Colts' defense, the first thing they talk about with the Patriots is their running game. This is definitely not a knock on Tom Brady, but because New England has dominated them on the ground in the past two meetings. What makes New England such a good running team, no matter who is in the backfield for them?

Reiss: The Colts saw the Patriots’ running game at its best, Mike. It hasn’t always been like that this season. In fact, just this past Saturday against the Ravens, the running attack was nonexistent as they had just one traditional running play in the entire second half -- a Tom Brady sneak. They finished with 10 carries for 9 yards when taking away three kneel-downs. So a lot of it is contingent on matchups, and I think one thing the Patriots have liked against the Colts under Chuck Pagano is their ability to overpower what has been more of an undersized defensive front.

How different is this defense from the unit that the Patriots trampled for 244 rushing yards Nov. 16?

Wells: Outside of having defensive lineman Art Jones, who takes up a lot of space, back in the lineup, I’d say the confidence level is the biggest difference. They knew they were going to be tested by Denver running back C.J. Anderson last weekend. They responded to the challenge by holding Anderson to just 80 yards and the Broncos to a total of 88 yards rushing. Another key to be able to stop the run is that the Colts are comfortable leaving cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler by themselves one-one-one on the outside. Manning constantly tried to test the Colts’ secondary, and he constantly failed. Davis had five passes defended, which was the most in a playoff game since Jan. 18, 2004. Having confidence in the secondary means the Colts can have linebackers Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson up in the box more to defend the run.

It wouldn’t be right if I asked you about New England’s running game but didn’t ask you about Brady. As you mentioned, the Pats abandoned the running game in the second half against Baltimore. What allows Brady to still be so effective despite not running the ball at times and being 37 years old?

Reiss: If you haven’t had a chance, check out this Sports Illustrated article on Brady from December. It will answer a lot of questions about Brady’s desire, drive and full-life commitment to his craft; seriously, he eats ice cream that is made from raw ingredients, mostly vegetables, with an avocado base and cocoa mixed in to make it taste like chocolate. That’s where it starts. Specific to the football, his arm remains strong, he’s as sharp mentally as ever (the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter Saturday was him at his best in the chess match), and he’s actually improved his mobility and ability to extend plays. So, in other words, he’s successfully fighting off Father Time.

Any sense on how much, if at all, Colts players are using the Nov. 16 game as a form of motivation?

Wells: The majority of the players on the current roster have never beaten the Patriots in a Colts uniform. Only five players remain on the active roster from when Luck was drafted in 2012. The Colts know they’re underdogs in this game, which they should be when you take into consideration that they’ve been outscored 144-66 in those three losses. They used that same underdog mentality against Denver on Sunday because many people had already penciled in a Brady vs. Manning AFC Championship Game. Punter Pat McAfee mocked our colleagues at ESPN by posting a Twitter picture of all of them picking the Broncos. A large majority of the players made comments to the media about not giving them a chance to win before even answering our questions inside the locker room after the game in Denver. The final thing is that the Colts have the mentality that they have nothing to lose Sunday. They’re only in Year 3 of the reloading phase that general manager Ryan Grigson talked about when he got hired in 2012, and they’re already in the AFC Championship Game.

Luck has been nearly flawless in the playoffs, but the Patriots have owned him in his career (eight interceptions). Why has Bill Belichick’s defense been so successful against him?

Reiss: The essence of a defense coached by Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia is to take away the primary things that you rely on and force you out of your comfort zone. Take the Nov. 16 game as an example: The Patriots had their top cornerback on Reggie Wayne and then had Kyle Arrington on T.Y. Hilton, with safety help over the top quite a bit. I thought Luck adjusted pretty well to that, with tight end Coby Fleener having a big day (seven catches, 144 yards) because that was the more favorable matchup. For Luck, a big part of this is just gaining more experience, and I think he’s already making strides. A good comparison might be Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. In the Ravens’ wild-card round playoff victory over the Patriots following the 2009 season, his second in the NFL, he had 34 passing yards in the game. Now look at him. It just takes a little time.

The change at running back seems notable as Boom Herron played one offensive snap against the Patriots on Nov. 16. Tell us more about when the Colts made that switch and what the results have been?

Wells: The Colts tried over and over again to give Trent Richardson a shot at being the starter. But over and over again, Richardson failed. As you recall, the Colts lost Ahmad Bradshaw for the season because of a fractured fibula in the game against New England in November. Richardson’s lack of production meant they had to turn to somebody, and that player was Herron. His big moment came in a game against Cleveland in early December. The Colts had just driven 88 yards downfield when they were faced with four-and-inches from the Browns' 2-yard line with 44 seconds left in the game. Herron used a second effort to get the first down. The Colts won 25-24 because Herron picked up that first down. Luck has taken advantage of Herron’s pass-catching ability in the playoffs. Herron has 18 catches on 19 targets for 117 yards in the two playoff games.

Hilton had his worst game of the season against the Pats -- three catches for 24 yards. The Colts talked about the Pats providing safety help over top to stop Hilton from having big plays down the field. Is it safe to assume Hilton can expect to see a similar type of coverage?

Reiss: Yes, that’s fair. The Colts give a defense a lot to defend, particularly with their tight ends and various personnel groupings, but I would imagine protecting against Hilton and the big play remains near the top of the Patriots’ priority list. What will be interesting is if Arrington again draws the assignment on Hilton (with safety help) or if they switch some things up. The main thing is that I would expect the Patriots to spend the majority of the game in sub packages, so it will test the depth of the secondary. Starting cornerback Brandon Browner didn’t finish the divisional-round game with a knee injury, so his status bears monitoring.

What might be a Colts-based X factor in the game that could be slipping under the radar?

Wells: I’m going with a player you and Patriots fans are familiar with: receiver Hakeem Nicks, who has five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown this postseason. The Colts signed Nicks with the vision of him being the third receiver alongside of Reggie Wayne and Hilton. Nicks had a solid start, but then he dropped off so badly that he was replaced by rookie Donte Moncrief as the No. 3 receiver. But Nicks started to come on late in the season, and he often reminded me that he takes his game to another level in the playoffs. That was evident when he had 28 receptions for 444 yards and four touchdowns during the 2011 playoffs with the New York Giants. He capped his impressive playoff performance with 10 catches for 109 yards in the Giants’ Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.

You asked for my X factor from the Colts’ perspective. Who is New England’s X factor this weekend?

Reiss: Let’s go with kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the return game and special teams. Gostkowski had 53 touchbacks in the regular season, tied for fifth-most in the NFL, but he’s had only three in his last 14 kickoffs (Dec. 21, Dec. 28, Jan. 10). When the weather gets colder and the ball gets colder, it makes the return game more of a factor. Plus, I wanted to mention Gostkowski because it was a springboard to also reference Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who knows a thing or two about pressure field goal attempts. Wouldn’t it be something if Vinatieri, the former Patriot, is called upon to deliver a game-winning field goal in the pressure moment? Patriots fans know the odds are high that he’d deliver.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A key to the Indianapolis Colts' run defense is the play of their cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler on the outside because of their ability to defend one-on-one.

The problem is, though, Davis and Toler both missed practice Wednesday with knee and groin injuries, respectively.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano said he doesn't think the injuries will cause either player to miss Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. He hopes both players will practice Thursday.

As far as the rest of the injury report goes, linebacker Erik Walden was limited in practice because of a knee issue and D'Qwell Jackson was given his customary rest day.
INDIANAPOLIS -- A minor footnote in the Indianapolis Colts' 24-13 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday was running back Trent Richardson being inactive for the game.

Richardson's struggles for the past 16 months are well documented, but we didn't think it would get to the point where he would appear on the inactive list.

Three-string running back? Yes.

Inactive? That raised some eyebrows.

It turns out Richardson was inactive and replaced by Michael Hill as the No. 3 running back because of his lack of experience on special teams.

The Colts gave Richardson a shot on special teams in practice last week, but he was unfamiliar with it because he's never been put in that position before.

"Michael Hill was a special teams player, and Trent's, not to knock on Trent, Trent's never been asked to be a special teams player," coach Chuck Pagano said. "He was doing everything in a short period of time to try to get himself ready, but Michael was more ready to go out and be the third back and contribute on special teams."

The fact that it's even reached this point with Richardson is the alarming part.

From starter, to backup, to starter again, to backup, to third string, to special teams player, to being inactive.

That's how things have gone for Richardson since the Colts acquired him in September 2013. Now you have to wonder if you'll see him in an Indianapolis' uniform again.