October 16, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

Andrew Luck would take points over possession time any day. This year he doesn't have to choose.

The Colts are leading the NFL in both categories -- a rare double.

''An old coach used to say, `It's not how long you hold it. It's what you do with it,''' Luck said. '' If you're keeping the ball for seven-minute drives and not getting points out of it, that's not a good outcome.''

That's never been much of a problem for the Colts.

Throughout most of Peyton Manning's career, Indy (4-2) embraced its image as one of the NFL's most potent offenses. Luck's arrival in 2012 kept that image intact.

His remarkable penchant for getting the Colts into scoring position and pulling off late comebacks drew rave reviews. But this may be his best performance yet.

While Luck continues to lead the league in touchdown passes (17) and passing yards (1,987) and is on pace for the second-highest single-season completion total in league history, an improved supporting cast has made Indy the most efficient team in football.

The Colts lead the league in points per game (31.5) and time of possession, an astounding 36 minutes, 28 seconds. Second-place San Diego is second at 34:34. If the Colts continue this historic pace, they would supplant the 1984 Chicago Bears for most possession time in one season since the league started tracking the stat in 1981, according to STATS. Chicago held the ball for 35:08.

How have the Colts been able to play keep away so successfully? With a design that puts stress on opposing defenses.

''This is what we envisioned from the standpoint of having the personnel that allows us to do a lot of different things,'' offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said Thursday. ''It puts pressure on the defense to decide who they want to try and take away.''

Luck has executed the game plan exquisitely.

The numbers indicate he's increasingly looking for second and third reads while exploiting the middle of the field. Eight of his touchdown passes have gone to tight ends. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw has five TD receptions. Bradshaw and Trent Richardson also have been more effective in short-yardage situations, extending drives. The result: Indy's 45.2 percent third-down conversion rate is No. 2 in the league. Yet Luck can still burn opponents deep, as T.Y. Hilton demonstrated last week at Houston.

Indy's defense has done its part, too.

Opponents are converting just 29.7 percent of their third-down attempts, and the Colts have forced eight turnovers in four weeks and recovered three onside kicks, creating more scoring chances for Luck.

Indy has taken advantage of the combination, winning four straight to reclaim the AFC South lead. They'll try to extend the streak Sunday when AFC North-leading Cincinnati (3-1-1) visits Lucas Oil Stadium.

''We're running a lot of plays on offense,'' coach Chuck Pagano said. ''Consequently we're moving the chains and moving the sticks. The yards are adding up and the points are adding up and all those things. Our defense is chewing ice and sitting on the bench a lot longer, playing a lot less.

''Every time we look up, it's 48 plays, 50 plays, 52 plays on defense, so they're a lot fresher,'' he added. ''When you're fresh, especially in the fourth quarter, it makes all the difference in the world.''

Inside the locker room, though, nobody is satisfied.

Luck is trying to reduce the interceptions, the coaching staff is imploring players to cut down on penalties and the Colts' runners insist they can do better than the 3.7 yards per carry they're currently averaging.

''I don't think we've hit on all cylinders yet,'' said Bradshaw, who won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants. ''I think if we get everything right, we can be 10 times better than we are right now because of the weapons we have.''

Leaving Luck with one job -- keeping the Colts' on track.

''I think points are more important than the keep-away game,'' he said. ''But I know it does help if we can put long drives together and get some points at the end of them.''

Notes: Cornerback Darius Butler (ankle) and linebacker Erik Walden (rest) both missed Thursday's practice. Safety Mike Adams (ankle), defensive tackle Arthur Jones (ankle) and right guard Hugh Thornton (back) were all limited participants. ... Right tackle Gosder Cherilus (knee) and left guard Jack Mewhort (ankle) were both full participants Thursday... Backup offensive linemen Xavier Nixon (knee) returned to practice and could be activated from short-term injured reserve over the next three weeks.

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