Indianapolis shuts down Cincinnati in wild-card round, and will head to Denver to take on the No. 2-seed Broncos next.
After a 57-yard Mike Nugent field goal cut Indianapolis' lead to three at halftime, the Colts pulled away from the Bengals in the second half Sunday, securing a 26-10 win and booking themselves a trip to Denver for next weekend's divisional round.
Despite several drops by Hilton, Luck wound up throwing for 376 yards, highlighted by an eye-popping touchdown pass on the run to Donte Moncrief. Luck also avoided any turnovers, which is nothing to sneeze at after a 2013 postseason that saw him fire seven interceptions in two games.
The Indianapolis defense held up its end of the bargain, as well, pitching a second-half shutout.
Three thoughts on the Colts' victory:
1. From Bradshaw to Boom.
It's natural to contrast the heavy workload for Boom Herron with the complete absence of Trent Richardson on Sunday. (The Colts listed Richardson with an illness; he did not play a single snap.) In truth, it was not necessarily Richardson whom Herron replaced in the Indianapolis lineup. It was, and has been, Ahmad Bradshaw.
Bradshaw rushed for 425 yards in 10 games prior to suffering a season-ending leg injury. His value as an all-around back, though, was of greater value to Indianapolis than what he did on the ground -- Bradshaw is an adept pass-catcher out of the backfield and has long been a steady blocker, too.
Herron had been picking up the slack, particularly as a check-down option for Luck, prior to Sunday; he finished the regular season with 21 catches in limited action, while Richardson checked in at 27.
Plucked off the Cincinnati practice squad by Indianapolis last year, Herron proved to be even more instrumental on Sunday. Not only was he the game's leading rusher with 12 carries for 56 yards and one touchdown, but he caught 10 passes for 85 yards, and on multiple occasions helped Luck remain upright by picking up blitzers.
Heading into this game, the Bengals knew that they would have to supplement their lackluster pass rush with some blitzes. Herron helped squelch that plan. Zurlon Tipton saw action ahead of Richardson, so perhaps the latter really was sick on Sunday. Even if Richardson had been healthy, however, Herron would have deserved all the playing time he saw.
2. Injuries and lack of imagination doomed the Cincinnati offense.
The Bengals had two possessions in the first quarter. They produced 115 yards of offense and a touchdown, with the offense on the field for nearly nine minutes, as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson tested Indianapolis using a variety of weapons -- multiple touches for Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill on the ground, Mohamed Sanu from the slot.
The mood changed rather quickly. Unable to stretch the field vertically with A.J. Green out of the lineup (no, random heaves to Greg Little do not count), the Bengals compounded their issues by failing to keep either Hill or Gio Bernard involved.
Hill, who eventually found himself stuck on the sideline with an ankle injury, saw just one second-quarter carry. Bernard caught six passes, yet managed a measly 4.7 yards on those plays and ran the ball three times for six yards. As for Burkhead, his early inclusion in the gameplan went the Keyser Soze route: "And like that, poof, he's gone."
Eventually, the game devolved into what has become a typical Bengals playoff performance, complete with Andy Dalton turning over the football.
Minus Green and TE Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals faced an uphill battle in trying to put points on the scoreboard. Still, they seemed to have Indianapolis on its heels early, thanks to some heavy-blocking sets (two tight ends and Burkhead in a WR role). For whatever reason, Cincinnati bailed on what was, at least briefly, working.
3. Tough challenge for Indianapolis, tougher questions for Cincinnati.
The Colts know what awaits them now -- another rematch against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Manning is 1-1 vs. Indianapolis since his move west, but he has thrown for 655 yards, six touchdowns and one interception combined in those games. A Week 1 Colts' rally fell short in Denver, with Manning's club earning a 31-24 victory. The AFC South champs will be an underdog next weekend and have their work cut out for them.
What happens next in Cincinnati is far less clear. Marvin Lewis' current contract is set to expire after next season. Meanwhile, Jackson already has been tabbed as a potential head-coaching candidate by several teams around the league.
Will he be back next year? Perhaps more importantly, will Lewis?
The Bengals have been to the playoffs four straight times under Lewis' watch and six times overall in his 12 seasons with the team. They have exactly zero wins to show for those trips. Lewis may get something of a pass this year, considering the road trip to a tough venue and the ever-mounting injuries -- Hill, LB Rey Maualuga and CB Dre Kirkpatrick all came up hobbling Sunday.
The breaking point has to be close nonetheless. This is a Cincinnati team with enough youth to stay a contender for the next several seasons, but is that enough? Expectations should be higher than simply making the playoffs and going home.