Sun, Dec 15, 2019

There are a few teams in the National Football League who make things look easy. The Indianapolis Colts are not one of them.

When the going gets tough for the Colts … things tend to get even tougher. The gods of fortune and timing have not been kind to Indianapolis, and they show no sign of bestowing pity now. That horseshoe sitting proudly on the team’s logo? Yeah, someone needs to give that thing a rub.

This is a franchise that, since the start of last year, has had a head coach (Josh McDaniels) jilt them and an elite quarterback (Andrew Luck) retire just before the start of a new campaign. Despite all that, the team made the playoffs last year under Frank Reich and have this season worked their way into solid position behind the arm of new starting QB Jacoby Brissett.

If you’re telling me you tapped Indy as a serious playoff contender after Luck’s decision, well, you’re either one heck of a prognosticator or you’re pulling my leg.

Thursday brings what already shapes up as the decisive game of the Colts’ campaign: a virtual playoff play-in showdown against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium that will give the victor a tight grip on the tense AFC South and a likely shot at a home playoff game.

So naturally, the Colts are facing some more trouble right now.

Top running back Marlon Mack is out following hand surgery. The secondary has been torched by injuries, with five key players all suffering significant ailments. Wide receiver Parris Campbell is still out — and if T.Y. Hilton managed to return early from a calf injury that initially threatened to torpedo his season, he’ll still need to battle through the pain barrier.

Problems keep mounting. The Colts keep finding ways to overcome them.

“Frank Reich and (General Manager) Chris Ballard were the two perfect guys to deal with all the adversity,” FOX NFL analyst Jay Glazer told me this week. “They had a head coach pull out in Josh McDaniels, yet (they said), ‘Boom, let’s hire Frank Reich’ and they make the playoffs. They have their QB retire and, ‘Boom, no problem,’ they turn Jacoby Brissett into a star.

“They can just deal with things — big, massive blows to an organization — better than most. But at this point, injuries have caught up — they have just been decimated. However, because they have this mentality that they can deal with anything, they can be a team for the future. And they can still make the playoffs.”

To do so, they might need to overcome the Texans for the second time in a month. On Oct. 20, Brissett produced arguably the best performance of his career when the teams met in Indianapolis, with the hosts prevailing 30-23 thanks to his four touchdowns and 326 yards. This game is even more important.

Thanksgiving is not even upon us yet but already, a full week out from endless helpings of turkey and the blissful nap that surely follows, it kind of feels like the NFL postseason is tapping us on the shoulder.

As of Wednesday morning, Fox Bet has the Texans as slight favorites at home, at -188 to win the game. The spread currently predicts Houston as winning by 3.5 points.

According to FiveThirtyEight (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2019-nfl-predictions/?ex_cid=rrpromo), the outcome of Thursday will tilt things drastically. Going into the matchup, the site gives Houston and Indianapolis a 71 and 54 percent chance, respectively, of making the playoffs. A Colts win would lift their number to 82 percent, while a defeat would drop them to 35 percent. As for Houston, a win would give them an 85 percent postseason chance, while a loss would reduce their chances to 49 percent. That’s a hefty swing for both teams, regardless of the outcome.

The reasoning is all tied up with the divisional standings. Both teams sit at 6-4 right now, and while a Colts triumph would not only open up a one-game gap over Houston, it would also give Reich’s team the tiebreaker in the AFC South. A loss for the Colts makes things decidedly tricky, as they would surrender the tiebreaker and would find themselves in a Wild Card logjam, having already lost to the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Another big effort from Brissett would be very welcome and there seems to be little that fazes him. Reich believes the experience Brissett had in 2017, marshalling a 4-12 team in Luck’s injury-enforced absence, is now paying off.

“The good thing for Jacoby is he got the experience of basically playing an entire season,” Reich said. “And now what’s different for Jacoby is no one looks at Jacoby as a backup who is filling in for a guy. This is Jacoby’s team. When Andrew went down, he stepped in as the No. 1 guy.”

The Texans are coming off a crushing defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, so depending how you look at it, the Colts are either getting them at the best possible time … or the worst. Deshaun Watson has emerged as one of the top QBs in football, and will surely relish the chance to fire away against a vastly depleted defense.

Yet the Colts have found ways to survive — and thrive — regardless of whatever stands in their path. To be here at this point of the season, with their fate squarely in their own hands, seemed like a forlorn hope when Luck made his retirement decision for health reasons and some unfortunate boos rained down upon him at Lucas Oil Stadium.

No one prefers adversity, but the Colts have found a way to use it as fuel. Whether that supply has been used up will possibly be answered on Thursday as crunch time arrives, wrapped in the unmistakable feeling that the season is on the line.

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