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How a Players-Only Meeting Sparked the Colts’ Recent Turnaround

T.Y Hilton explains one piece of Indianapolis’s turnaround since starting 1–5: a players-only meeting where they “got some stuff cleaned up.” Also, notes on Josh Allen’s development, how this week could be tough for the Rams coming off two straight losses, why plenty of NFL personnel departments aren’t surprised by Mayfield’s performance and more.

Wrapping up Week 15 with one game to go (Saints at Panthers on Monday Night Football)…

1. T.Y. Hilton wouldn’t tell me what exactly what was said—only that the Colts held a players-only meeting after their loss to the Jets on Oct. 14, and whatever was said in that room resonated with the team. Before the meeting, Indianapolis was 1–5; since then the team has gone 7–1. And this sure doesn’t feel like a fluke.

“We got some stuff cleaned up,” Hilton said, after Sunday’s 23–0 shutout of the Cowboys. “And everybody started buying in. And once you’ve got a locker room that’s buying in and believing in one another, and coming out and playing for each other, it’s a tough team to beat.”

This all starts, of course, with the re-emergence of Andrew Luck as a top-of-the-league quarterback. “He’s trusting his arm and just letting go,” Hilton said. “You're trusting that all the work that he put in has paid off for him and he's trusting his arm, he's believing in it, and he’s having fun.” And part of the reason he’s having fun is because an offensive line with four top-40 picks on it, including rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, is making it fun for him. “They’re very different,” Hilton said. “They do a lot of things different than our past lines, they’re playing tough, they’re playing great.”

If you get the idea this seven-year vet is pretty pumped about where his team is at, you’re on to something. There’s a lot of be excited about in Indy right now. GM Chris Ballard had a solid first draft class, a walk-off grand slam of a second class and a healthy Andrew Luck back in the mix. And he’ll have close to $100 million to spend this offseason. They’ll be dangerous if they make it into this year’s postseason, and they’ll be a favorite next year.

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2. Hilton’s status was iffy going into yesterday’s game with Dallas, but he told me after the game that seeing a friend of his before kickoff changed his thought process in deciding whether to fight through a painful ankle injury that rendered him about 70%.

“I was very close [to not going],” Hilton said. “But being in the locker room, I saw Tyler, who’s dealing with some serious stuff, and that was a sign right there that he’s dealing with something more than what I'm dealing with. So I just put my pain to the side and just played for him today.” Tyler is Tyler Beikes, a 13-year-old Colts fan who lives in Arizona, and is being treated for a life-threatening heart condition in Indianapolis. He first visited the team last October, and told then-coach Chuck Pagano in front of the team that Hilton was his favorite player. Beikes and Hilton have grown close since. Hilton finished the game with five catches for 85 yards in the win.

3. One other Colts note—because we can’t deny the defense that shut out the Cowboys a mention. By now, you know about Defensive Rookie of the Year front-runner Darius Leonard. What’s really kicked first-year coordinator Matt Eberflus’s operation into high gear, though, has been the second wave of players becoming key cogs on an improving defensive line. One would be mid-level free-agent signing Denico Autry (three years, $17.5 million), who has six sacks in the team’s last three games. Another would be rookie Tyquan Lewis, the last pick of the second round out of Ohio State, who’s quickly developing into menace, and sacked Dak Prescott twice yesterday.

4. Bills QB Josh Allen was pretty raw and needed significant fundamental work coming out of Wyoming. Buffalo is looking for progress from their rookie quarterback, and yesterday’s win gave the team plenty of hope that what they’re trying to teach him—to take what the defense gives him and to protect himself when he runs—is starting to take. It showed yesterday, even with pedestrian numbers to show for it.

One play that was pulled for me was a first-and-10 in the third quarter on which, at the snap, Allen had receivers going vertical. In September, he may have taken a shot there. Here, instead, he calmly saw the defense falling off, and checked it down to running back Keith Ford, swinging into the flat, for seven yards. It’s a small example, but important given Allen’s propensity for home-run swings.

5. Here’s the value of good scouting, and scouting the person as much as the player. Where the public seems legitimately surprised at how Baker Mayfield has galvanized the Browns, there are plenty of folks in NFL personnel departments who aren’t shocked in the least how this has all played out. In my story about the Jets’ pursuit of Sam Darnold from May, you’ll see the anecdote lining up the grades of Darnold and Mayield. In there, Jets player personnel executive Zach Truty, who was responsible for grading Mayfield, gave the Heisman Trophy winner execeeding rare perfect scores of “9” as a teammate, leader and worker. All of which, safe to say, is showing up in Cleveland.

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6. This week will be a real test for the Rams after their 30-23 loss to the Eagles. They took some personality risks this offseason, betting that force-of-nature presence of Sean McVay and a youthful leadership group (Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald) would mitigate them. Now, the team has hit a real bump in the road with two straight losses late in the season. There’s a reason why Marcus Peters was available (and now he has the video out there to contend with), and Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh too. And it reminds you why Adam Gase cleaned out guys like Suh and Jarvis Landry—when things went wrong in 2017, the Dolphins’ leadership couldn’t/wouldn’t rein the group in and reset its path. How will the Rams locker room handle a little adversity? This is the first real bout they’ve had with it in 2018, so we’re about to find out.

7. While we’re there, a key number from that Eagles win: 30. That’s how many times Philly ran the ball, even with Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood doing the heavy lifting, and it sure seemed to change the offense’s dynamic. I had a coach who’d played the Eagles a few weeks ago mention to me how hard the running back injuries seemed to be hitting them. What they needed, it seems, was more balance. Sunday night’s performance (31 passes, 30 rushes) went a long way to getting the efficient effort they did from Nick Foles.

8. Speaking of balanced performances, the Bears’ run/pass ratio hit a perfect 50/50 yesterday: 29 pass plays, 29 run plays. And wouldn’t you know it? Mitchell Trubisky’s passer rating was 120.4.

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9. Raiders coach Jon Gruden told the Oakland media on Monday that given some of the issues around him, Derek Carr’s production is “astonishing. … The guy is a hell of a player. The guy is a great quarterback.” And Gruden meant it. The Bengals pounded Carr on Sunday to the tune of five sacks, and Carr still went 21-of-38 for 263 yards and a touchdown, hitting eight different receivers in the process. Suffice it to say, the coaches were pretty pleased with the effort, particularly considering they were starting their fourth and fifth guards. Oh, and he’s signed for the next four years at $78.5 million (with cap numbers hovering between $19 million and $22.5 million), which is very affordable for a starting quarterback. When the dust settles on 2018, Gruden’s gonna be happy keeping him.

10. We may now be done with in-season firings for 2018. Why? A team firing its coach next week would firing that coach on Christmas Eve. Which … I mean, it’s the NFL, so we’ll see.