AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

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.

Jackson
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)."
INDIANAPOLIS – Thirteen.

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:

WITHOUT JONES ON THE FIELD
  • 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
WITH JONES ON THE FIELD
  • 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
8:00
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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.

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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
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.

QB snapshot: Andrew Luck

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
1:00
PM ET
A quick observation of quarterback Andrew Luck and how he played in the Indianapolis Colts' 24-13 victory over the Denver Broncos in the divisional-round playoff matchup:

Give a simple glance at the stat sheet, and you might think it's not a good time for Luck to be facing the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game because he threw two interceptions against the Broncos.

Luck
Two interceptions heading into a game against a team that you've thrown eight interceptions against in your career isn't a good thing.

But Luck's interceptions came on throws of 43 and 37 yards downfield, on third down, and the Broncos gained a total of 2 yards on those returns. The Colts don't mind that, especially since they averaged 37.5 net yards per punt Sunday. Luck's interceptions ended up being more effective than their average punts.

Luck was nearly perfect against the Broncos, as he was against the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card matchup. He was 27-of-43 for 265 yards, two touchdowns and no sacks. Luck continues to take what the defense gives him. Running back Daniel "Boom" Herron had eight catches out of the backfield to give him 18 in the two playoff games.

Luck made one of his best throws of the season in the third quarter when he completed a 32-yard pass down the middle of the field to tight end Coby Fleener in a tight window between three Denver defenders on third-and-16.

Luck was under duress on 15 of his 45 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and was 8-of-13 for 99 yards and a touchdown. His seven touchdown passes under duress during the regular season were the most in the NFL.

"Andrew just played unbelievable," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "Unbelievable."

Luck got his first road playoff victory vs. Denver, and now he heads to Foxborough, Massachusetts, to face a New England team he's 0-3 against in his career.

"I'd like to think I'm a better quarterback and we're a better team and more well-equipped to handle the unknown and the unforeseen. I think we've got a bunch of good football players, and a chance to go up to New England and play them and get another crack at it is awesome," Luck said. "We'll make sure to take full advantage of it and do what we can."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts solved one of their significant, regular-season issues when they beat pocket-passing quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos last weekend.

Now the Colts are about to go head-to-head with another one of their issues when they take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is headed to the Hall of Fame once he retires, and yes, he's a handful to deal with, but the problem the Colts have had when they've played New England the past two times is stopping the run.

For the Colts, it started in the 2013 divisional-round playoff matchup when the Patriots rushed for 234 yards, including 166 yards from LeGarrette Blount, and then they had a repeat performance back in November when they rushed for 246 yards, including 201 yards from Jonas Gray.

"There's no way we don't know who their running backs are," Colts defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. "We have statistics of their running backs very well. We know what we have to do in this game. We have to stop their running game. It's a must. It's like the Denver game, if we didn't stop the running game, it's hard as hell to stop a team that can run and pass the ball."

The Colts were embarrassed after that game in November. They hadn't given up more than 136 yards rushing to a team prior to that and then suddenly a player who hadn't rushed for more than 86 yards in a game ran around, past and through them.

The Patriots used an offensive scheme that featured a power look with a sixth offensive lineman against Indianapolis. They used six offensive linemen on 37 snaps in that game, daring the Colts to try to stop them. Indianapolis, obviously, failed over and over again.

"As a defensive player, you don't want to ever have that happen again," Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding said. "We didn't have our best game. It's up to us to do what we've done the past few weeks, to make sure that never happens again."

The Colts held Manning and the Broncos, who had become more of a run-oriented team with C.J. Anderson, to only 88 yards rushing last weekend. Now they'll attempt to do the same against the Patriots, who have proven they can be effective running the ball no matter who is in the backfield for them.

The Patriots rushed for only 14 yards against the Baltimore Ravens last weekend, but that's largely because they completely abandoned the running game in the second half. Their only attempt in the second half was a quarterback sneak by Brady because Baltimore was dominating them up front.

Redding and the rest of the Colts' defensive linemen have to do the same thing on Sunday.

"They execute, they block well, they open up holes, got good runners," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "We've got to do a better job. We have not done a good job the last two outings. We're playing better run defense now than we ever have, so that's a positive. We've got to prepare the same way we prepared last week. We've got to do a better job because if we're not able to stop the run, we're not going to have a chance."
DENVER -- The highlight for the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line heading into Sunday was that they were going to start the same group in back-to-back games for the first time since October.

By the end of Sunday, though, the group had every right to feel good after they didn’t give up a sack to the Denver Broncos, the AFC’s best defense, in the Colts' 24-13 victory.

“The offensive line did a stand-up job, and you’ve got a team that had 41 sacks on the season, and great rushers on the inside and Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware on the outside,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “The offensive line, they did a great job. And [Andrew] Luck's got the ability to extend plays and buy time and move around and manipulate the pocket, if you will, but they did a great job.”

The way the offensive line played, you forget that the Colts had 11 different starting lineups on the offensive line.

Luck took some hits early in the game, but the line settled in and made Ware and Miller a nonfactor, which allowed Luck to sit back in the pocket and throw for 265 yards and two touchdowns.

“They did a heck of a job,” Luck said. “That’s a good pass rushing unit with some tough stuff to handle blitz-wise and they did a heck of a job and I think they’ve earned the right to go out there and expect to do a heck of a job. They do it in practice and they’ve done it in games; bunch of good guys.”
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DENVER -- The Indianapolis Colts knew about the criticism of their defense.

They actually deserved the criticism after they were picked apart by the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo during the regular season.

That’s why you wanted to chuckle when safety Mike Adams said last week that those things happened in the regular season, and that’s where they were leaving it.

Turns out Adams was right.

The Colts made Manning and the Denver Broncos look ordinary in their 24-13 victory on Sunday.

“We had times during the year where we struggled and weren’t playing well against the elite quarterbacks in the league,” Colts cornerback Darius Butler said. “This was a big challenge we put on ourselves, as a team, as a defense and we stepped up to it.”

Stepped up is an understatement. Domination is a better word, from the front seven to the cornerbacks blanketing Denver’s receivers. They made open-field tackles that they missed earlier in the season.

The only time the Broncos scored a touchdown was on their opening drive, and that came after the drive was extended following a roughing-the-passer penalty on Arthur Jones on third down that gave Denver a first down.

You immediately thought back to the Dallas game in Week 16 when the Cowboys extended their drive following a taunting penalty on linebacker Jerrell Freeman.

Not this time.

“We put the play behind us,” defensive lineman Cory Redding said. “You can’t dwell on the negatives. If we would have dwelled on that we would have lost the game. We knew all the things we were up against, but this team didn’t waver. We knew it was going to be a slugfest, 60 minutes, everything you’ve got. We wanted it more.”

The Colts held the Broncos to only 288 yards of total offense.

And Manning, the player who picked them apart in Week 1?

Manning constantly tested the Colts’ secondary, but cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler locked up Denver’s receivers all game.

“Seattle made the blueprint in the Super Bowl,” Davis said. “It was similar to what Seattle did as far as taking the receivers away. We’re the last line of defense. That’s why we get paid the big bucks.”

Adams added, "We disguised things and we were able to confuse them."

Here’s a further look at how the Colts dominated Manning and the Broncos:

-- According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Colts blitzed Manning on nine of his 15 third-down dropbacks. He was just 2-of-8 passing and lost a fumble on a sack against third-down blitzes. Rookie Jonathan Newsome got the strip sack of Manning in the first half.

-- Manning was only 6-of-21 for 107 yards on throws longer than 5 yards downfield.

-- Manning was 2-for-12 for 49 yards on throws at least 15 yards downfield, his lowest completion percentage on deep throws in a game since Week 12 of 2013. He had eight overthrown passes, all of which were at least 15 yards downfield.

-- The Colts sacked Manning twice.

“Normally you hold your breath when Peyton is back in the pocket,” Colts defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. “We didn’t have to hold our breath. We knew we could get after him, get him off his spot. We knew we could frustrate him and get in his head, get him out the pocket. We did everything that was asked of us from [defensive coordinator] Greg Manusky.

“Week in and week out, he sleeps in that meeting room and when you see him wake up the next morning, you don’t want to disappoint a guy like that, who could have been home with his family, but he’s in his office from when we finish practice until the next morning trying to come up with an effective game plan.”

That game plan worked to perfection Sunday.
videoDENVER -- The biggest win of Andrew Luck's three-year career came in what ultimately might have been his predecessor's final game.

Luck pushed aside Peyton Manning in his own house Sunday in Denver. Now he will try to pull off a rare feat: beating Manning and New England’s Tom Brady in back-to-back playoff games when the Indianapolis Colts face the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at 6:40 p.m. ET Jan. 18 at Gillette Stadium.

“Words can’t describe how special [Luck] is,” Colts receiver Hakeem Nicks said of his QB, who won for the first time on the road in the playoffs as Indianapolis beat Denver 24-13. “The belief he has in his play-making is something not many people have. He’s definitely a guy who comes around once every blue moon. He’s not your average quarterback.”

Five teams have tried to beat Manning and Brady in back-to-back playoff games, but only former New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (2010) and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (2012) have done it.

For all the late-game heroics and overall success Luck has had in his career so far, the one thing he hasn’t been able to accomplish is beating Brady and the Patriots.

Luck is 0-3 against New England and has thrown eight interceptions, including four when these two teams met in the 2013 playoffs.

“I’d like to think I’m a better quarterback and we’re a better team and more well-equipped to handle the unknown and the unforeseen,” said Luck, who threw for 303 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 42-20 loss to the Patriots at home Nov. 16. “I think we’ve got a bunch of good football players, and a chance to go up to New England and play them and get another crack at it is awesome. We’ll make sure to take full advantage of it and do what we can.”

This isn’t the same Luck who turned the ball over 22 times during the regular season. He’s making the right reads and not forcing the ball down the field to his receivers. He's playing safe -- not risky. That's why running back Daniel Herron has 18 catches in two playoff games, and that's why the Broncos didn't sack Luck.

Luck did throw two interceptions against the Broncos, but they were third-down heaves that were basically punts. When he was pressured, he was 8-of-13 for 99 yards and a touchdown. Not surprising, considering Luck's seven touchdown passes under duress during the regular season were the most in the NFL.

The best way to describe Luck these days: nearly flawless.

He’ll have to continue to play that way if he expects to join Sanchez and Flacco in an exclusive club.

“Andrew does a great job of simplifying things,” tight end Dwayne Allen said. “[He] focuses on his job. He does a great job of leading us, making sure there’s no panic inside of us. It doesn’t matter if he’s throwing an interception or throwing a touchdown -- he’s so even keeled. He’s never fazed, and that’s why [GM Ryan] Grigson got him with the first pick.”

The Colts knew they had a special player when they selected Luck No. 1 overall over Robert Griffin III in 2012. What they didn’t know, though, was how quick Luck would have them on the brink of the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009.

The script, one that many inside the organization believe could have a magical ending, couldn’t have been written any better when the Colts released Manning in 2012. They called it reloading, not rebuilding.

“I knew it was the right thing to do for the Colts,” an excited Colts owner Jim Irsay said outside the locker room. “Emotionally, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do [release Manning]. In professional football, it’s about winning, and you have to be able to make the decisions that are best for the franchise.”

It took Manning six years to win his first playoff game. Not Luck, who led the Colts to a playoff appearance as a rookie and a playoff victory in his second season, and now he has the Colts in the conference championship game. He is 3-2 in the playoffs, and his 1,703 passing yards are the most through five playoff starts in NFL history.

"We’ve got a special team," receiver Reggie Wayne said. "We have everything in place."

It’s because of Luck that players want to play for Indianapolis. Nicks said Sunday he was looking for a young quarterback who had a winning mentality. Safety Mike Adams stood inside the locker room the day he signed in June and pointed at Luck’s nameplate and said, “He’s young, he’s enthusiastic, and he doesn’t rattle easy.”

“That was part of the plan of coming back,” said Wayne, who re-signed with the Colts in 2012. “I know how hard he works each week. Andrew shows week in and week out what he’s capable of doing. I’m just glad he’s my teammate. Each game, in the huddle, he commands the respect in the huddle, and he leads us down the field and does his job.”

His job won't be easy Sunday against a future Hall of Fame quarterback and a team making its fourth consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

Quick Take: Colts at Patriots

January, 11, 2015
Jan 11
10:03
PM ET
» Conference Championships: Schedule » AFC: IND-NE » NFC: GB-SEA

Three things to know about the Indianapolis Colts' AFC Championship Game matchup at 6:40 p.m. ET Jan. 18 against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:

Stop the run: It hasn’t been Patriots quarterback Tom Brady who has owned the Colts in the past two games. It has been New England’s running backs. First, it was LeGarrette Blount in the 2013 playoff matchup and then Jonas Gray ran for 201 of the Patriots’ 244 yards in November. The Colts did a good job of containing Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson in the divisional-round game, holding him to only 80 yards. You can expect the Patriots to use their running game to help set up the play-action pass for Brady.

Luck factor: The Patriots have had Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's number so far in his career. In three career games, all losses, Luck has thrown eight interceptions, including four in the playoff loss to them last season. The Patriots have outscored the Colts 144-66 in three games with Luck. Luck, however, has been smart with the football lately. He threw two interceptions against the Broncos, but they were both third-down heaves that were effectively punts.

Pressure Brady: Just like with Peyton Manning on Sunday, the Colts have to find a way to make Brady uncomfortable. They’ve sacked Brady only two times in the past two meetings. The Colts did intercept him two times in the game in November. Brady was 33-of-50 for 367 yards and three touchdowns in New England’s victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round.
Here are the inactives for Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos:

COLTS: CB Jalil Brown, RB Trent Richardson, CB Sheldon Price, LB Henoc Muamba, OL Xavier Nixon, OL Jonotthan Harrison, DL Zach Kerr

BRONCOS: WR Cody Latimer, CB Tony Carter, RB Juwan Thompson, OL Paul Cornick, OL Michael Schofield, TE Dominique Jones, DL Mitch Unrein

The big news -- actually, it's not that big of a deal -- is that Richardson is inactive Sunday for the Colts. It's not a big deal because Richardson has been a disappointment since the Colts acquired him from Cleveland in September 2013.

Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, lost his starting job to Donald Brown late in the 2013 season. He regained it this season, but lost it to Daniel “Boom” Herron in Week 16 and Richardson was the third running back behind Herron and Zurlon Tipton in last week's playoff game against Cincinnati. Richardson only played one snap against the Bengals.

Richardson spent time practicing with special teams last week. He's yet to rush for 100 yards in a game and has only totaled 977 yards in 29 games with the Colts.

Now you have to wonder if the one snap Richardson played against the Bengals is the last time you'll him in a Colts uniform.
INDIANAPOLIS - Just as Andrew Luck had no interest in making Sunday’s playoff game about himself and Peyton Manning, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne was not interested in talking his memories of playing with Manning.

Bush
Wayne
Manning
It’s nothing personal against Manning, because he and Wayne were teammates for 11 seasons, but Wayne's focus is strictly on trying to beat the Broncos on Sunday.

“I could tell you about Andrew Luck; that sticks out,” Wayne said. “[Manning's] on the other team right now. I’ll holler at him later. Right now, it’s all about [No.] 12.”

Wayne did soften up a little bit about Manning. He was asked if it’s still weird seeing Manning in another team’s uniform. Manning is in his third season with the Broncos.

“Not no more. It’s probably more strange seeing all these Papa John’s commercials,” Wayne said. “I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve had so many friends come and go and play for other teams. As a professional football player, that’s part of the game. That happens, happens pretty frequently. You get used to it, man. When you sign your name on that line on that contract, at any point in time, anything can happen.

“Things can change. That was something nobody ever thought would happen, but it happened. You still suit up and play no matter what’s at stake. You go out there and you play. You’ve still got each other’s phone numbers. You can still text message, call and talk to him later.”

Wayne told a story about how he caught passes from Wayne during the 2012 offseason while the quarterback was working his way back from his neck injury. Manning reached out Wayne to return the favor last offseason as the receiver was working his way back from a torn ACL.

“I appreciate that, man,” Wayne said. “Peyton’s a good guy, man. He’s a good teammate. He’s a good person, even though he didn’t come throw to me, but it’s all good.”

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