The Indianapolis Colts (12-5) face the Denver Broncos (12-4) in Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The fourth-seeded visitors lost 31-24 to their second-seeded hosts in the season opener at Denver. Here are the Colts’ keys in the rematch:
1. Give Andrew Luck time — It’s become the No. 1 priority for every Colts game, considering how much the quarterback means to his team. Luck was sacked only once and seldom saw pressure unless against the blitz in a 26-10 AFC Wild Card playoff victory over Cincinnati. The result was a 376-yard passing game with one touchdown and no turnovers. In Week 1 at Denver, Luck was sacked three times and threw two interceptions. And because the Colts fell behind 24-0 in the second quarter, he was forced to throw 53 times, completing a single-game, career-high 35. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware had 1.5 of those sacks. Colts right offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus shut out outside linebacker Von Miller, but Cherilus is now on injured reserve and the blocking responsibility falls to reserve Joe Reitz. He’ll probably need some help from tight ends and running backs. Miller had 14 sacks and Ware 10 in the regular season to form one of the league’s top pass-rushing tandems. The Colts will look to get running back Daniel Herron involved in the pass game; the second-year pro caught 10 passes for 85 yards against the Bengals. The dump-off, quick-hit throws will be necessary at times to keep the linebackers honest and try to take some of steam out of that pass rush.
2. Neutralize Broncos run game — This might seem like an unusual priority when facing an offense guided by quarterback Peyton Manning, but Denver has committed to running the football with C.J. Anderson late in the season. In his last six games, the second-year back has rushed for 648 yards on 140 carries, 4.6 yards per carry and a game average of 108. Whether Manning is completely healthy or not due to a thigh injury, the Broncos’ recent trend for more run-pass balance can’t be ignored. In fact, expect the Broncos to rely upon it heavily, considering Manning had three TD passes and six interceptions in the last four games. The Colts’ run defense couldn’t stop New England in allowing a season-worst 246 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 44 carries in a 42-20 home loss on Nov. 16. Defensive tackle Arthur Jones missed the game. He returned the next week and the Colts allowed an average of 113.5 rushing yards, 3.8 yards per carry, the last six regular-season games. That’s about their seasonal average; the Colts ranked 18th in rush defense at 113.4 yards allowed and tied for 19th at 4.3 yards allowed per carry.
3. No doubting Thomas — While tight end Julius Thomas carved up the Colts for three touchdowns in the opener, he battled injuries and wasn't the same player the rest of the season. But there’s no question wide receiver Demaryius Thomas will be a focal point. He set a franchise record with 1,619 receiving yards this season. Manning completed 111 passes in his direction, 11 of those for touchdowns. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders caught 104 passes for 1,404 yards and nine TDs. So regardless of where those two wide receivers line up, Colts cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler will be in for a challenge. The Colts were 12th in pass defense at 229.3 yards allowed per game, but Manning was sacked only once in the previous meeting and had all kinds of time to complete 22-of-36 passes for 269 yards and three TDs. It’s probably unrealistic to expect relentless pressure on Manning, whose numbers slipped down the stretch, but getting inside pressure with the 3-4 blitz will limit how much time those receivers have to get open. It’s not always about the sacks, but more about the pressure. Manning will be looking to isolate his targets in one-on-one coverage and Thomas is the type of receiver who can beat a defender deep and on jump balls with his 6-foot-3, 229-pound size advantage. He’ll run the crossing routes and slants, too.
4. Hang onto the ball — The Colts lost one fumble in their first-round playoff win and will need ball security to have a chance to win this game. Luck was intercepted 16 times and lost six fumbles in the regular season, but made a conscious effort to be more careful against the Bengals and it showed. He needs to have another zero-turnover game. Luck must be mindful of Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, one of the NFL’s best cover corners. He had four interceptions and returned two for touchdowns. Don’t make a mistake in this guy’s area. The Broncos were plus-5 in turnover differential while the Colts were minus-5 in the regular season. In the Colts’ five losses, they committed 10 turnovers. Give Denver and Manning extra possessions and that offense will wear down any defense. That Manning has had trouble with eight turnovers in the last five games suggests the Colts could generate some takeaways of their own if they can get to him or force some hurried passes. Anderson didn’t lose a fumble all season, Denver recovered the only one he had, so don’t expect him to be charitable.
5. Spread those passes around — The Broncos were ninth in pass defense at 225.4 yards allowed, so throwing on these guys will be difficult. But the Colts have several options. While No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is an obvious go-to guy, Luck needs to get his tight ends involved. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener each caught a team-high eight touchdown passes. They combined to catch 80 passes for 1,169 yards. In some games, it seemed like they weren’t involved enough, although Allen again battled injuries that limited his effectiveness at times. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne had only one catch against the Bengals, but he’s a 14th-year pro with the kind of experience that the Colts should be able to count on. He knows how to run those crossing routes and find soft spots in the middle of the field. Rookie wide receiver Donte Moncrief, like Hilton, can stretch the field with his speed. And wide receiver Hakeem Nicks might not make many flashy plays but he had a 45-yard grab against the Bengals and caught four TD passes in the regular season. If Luck has the time to throw, he should be able to utilize all of his weapons and keep the Broncos’ pass defenders on their heels.