When the NFL schedules were announced in the offseason, Sunday probably wasn’t circled for many Indianapolis Colts fans.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like a routine win then, considering the franchise was in a rebuilding mode after a 2-14 season. The Colts had reached the AFC Championship Game after a third consecutive 11-5 regular season with Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck.
A lot has changed since then.
But the Bucs visit Lucas Oil Stadium with the same 5-5 record as the Colts. Tampa Bay used the No. 1 overall draft pick on quarterback Jameis Winston. When he was born in 1994, Colts 40-year-old quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was a freshman at Boston College.
It’s Hasselbeck instead of the injured Luck leading the Colts in a game between two teams who have won two in a row. The 17th-year pro is 3-0 as Luck’s fill-in this season. Winston, after a rocky rookie start, has picked up his game dramatically as the Bucs have won four of five games.
Winston threw a rookie-record five touchdown passes in leading the Bucs to a 45-17 rout of the Eagles in Philadelphia last Sunday. Running back Doug Martin gashed Philly for 235 rushing yards. Winston threw his touchdown passes to five different receivers.
“Obviously he’s wired the right way,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said of Winston. “There’s a reason he was the No. 1 overall pick. Plays with great confidence. We know the skill set. He’s got all the intangibles. That team believes him. He can make all the throws. He can extend plays. He’s doing a lot of things really well. He’s executing. He’s spreading the ball around. Guys are making plays for him. Obviously the run game, with any offense, takes some of the pressure off the quarterback, especially a young one.
“He’s big and strong and courageous and tough as damn nails. He’ll stand in there and keep his eyes down field. He’ll take hits. If he’s got to lay it on the line to get the ball across the goal line to win a game, he’ll do whatever he has to do.”
So much for the Bucs being a gimme win, huh?
The Colts, tied with Houston atop the AFC South Division, will be without offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo (MCL sprain), which means some O-line shuffling that likely puts right tackle Joe Reitz at Castonzo’s spot. Who plays right tackle won’t be known until before kickoff. The Colts have looked at left guard Jack Mewhort and rookie tackle Denzelle Good at right tackle in practice. Good hasn't played an NFL down.
The Bucs rank higher than the Colts in nearly every major statistical category. Head coach Lovie Smith’s team is ninth in offense, 13th in defense, tied for 12th in points scored, 26th in points allowed and ninth in turnover ratio at plus-3.
The Colts, who rallied to a 24-21 win at Atlanta in their eight consecutive one-possession game last Sunday, rank 18th in offense, 27th in defense, 18th in points scored, 19th in points allowed and 27th in turnover ratio at minus-6.
“They’re classic Lovie Smith,” Hasselbeck said of the Bucs. “Really, really good on defense. Very fast, talented defensive line, their linebackers can fly. They run like safeties, their safeties run like corners and their corners are great tacklers. I think what comes with that is because they’re built on speed and athleticism their special teams are really good. I think they are maybe third in the league right now. So they’re winning that field position battle most of the time and they’ve got a great running back and some explosive receivers. When you look at their entire team, it’s classic Lovie Smith and it’s going to be a tough game.”
Martin makes life easier for Winston as the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 941 yards, 65 behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson. Colts leading rusher Frank Gore ranks 11th with 633 yards. He’s had some decent games, but the Colts haven’t enjoyed a 100-yard rusher in 50 games, including 44 in the regular season.
Colts inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, the NFL’s leading tackler with 100 stops, knows what to expect from facing the Bucs.
“They’re definitely going to ride that horse,” Jackson said of Martin. “Jameis, he makes a lot of great throws in the pocket. He’s a bigger guy (6-4 and 231). … He reminds you of like a Ben Roethlisberger statue. You really have to get your hands around him and go after the ball to get him down. He’s playing extremely well, but they’re definitely going to ride that rushing horse.”
Whereas the Colts control their own playoff destiny and own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Texans based on a win at Houston, the Bucs are third in the NFC South Division and are seventh in their conference pecking order. So the visitors are on the outside looking in.
“I think we’re in a battle with ourselves for first place really,” Hasselbeck said of the Colts. “It’s up to us. We control what happens, if we go out and win these games that we get to play then we’ll win this division again. That is our number one goal. It’s the thing we talk about all the time in this locker room, let’s win this week so we can accomplish our goal, which is being AFC South Champs again, which guarantees us a home playoff game, which guarantees us a chance to get in the tournament and we’ll see what happens from there.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.