Now Colts Need to Play Well on Road

At the risk of reminding the obvious, the Indianapolis Colts just crushed two winless teams at home. If there’s really a reason for optimism, they must show this stuff at Chicago and at Cleveland.
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INDIANAPOLIS — There was plenty of hoopla and giddy noteworthy research about the Indianapolis Colts amid another impressive home win on Sunday.

Yeah, that’s two in a row at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Not to break up the party after a 36-7 thumping of the hapless New York Jets, but technically, three consecutive victories is a streak.

And for the Colts (2-1) to achieve a three-game winning streak and provide stronger evidence that this AFC team is actually on a roll after a stinker start, they have to win on the road against the Chicago Bears (3-0).

If that happens, go win on the road against the Cleveland Browns (2-1).

Seriously, it should be do-able if the Colts are legit playoff contenders. What we can’t see in these road trips is the team that opened the season with a 27-20 loss at Jacksonville. Remember how discouraging that was? The Jaguars have since lost back-to-back games.

So simple math, factoring in a 28-11 Colts home win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2, the Colts’ opponents are a combined 1-8. And that one win was the Jaguars inexplicably knocking off the Colts in the opener.

Should Colts fans be modestly encouraged after the past two Sundays? Sure. Should they be optimistic about the challenges in the near future? One would hope so, based on the positive trends.

The Colts defense is statistically one of the NFL’s best. The Colts offense has been clicking with quarterback Philip Rivers completing a high percentage of passes and rookie running back Jonathan Taylor progressing as a reliable workhorse in the ground game.

That’s why historic stats on Sunday added to the growing euphoria. The Colts had three interceptions for the second consecutive week. They humbled the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, then the Jets’ Sam Darnold. The Colts haven’t had back-to-back games with three picks since 1992.

Colts cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie returned two Darnold interceptions for touchdowns. That hasn’t happened for the Colts since 1970.

And when defensive end Justin Houston sacked Darnold for a safety, it marked the second consecutive week the Colts have done that. DeForest Buckner got Cousins last week. The last time the Colts have had safeties in back-to-back games was 1960.

Hats off to the Colts media relations staff for the research.

All of that makes for encouraging reading, but hopefully, the Colts don’t pay too much attention to receiving so much love from the local media. They talk about how each week is viewed with a clean slate, that this NFL grind is as Rivers suggests, a 16-round boxing match.

Using that analogy, the Colts have lost an ugly decision after being eight-point road favorites, then responded with impressive knockouts since.

After Week 1, questions were asked about why the Colts secondary didn’t play more aggressively in coverage against Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew, who had only one incomplete pass in 20 attempts and threw three TD passes to wide-open receivers.

Since then, the questions have shifted to how the Colts have made such a dramatic improvement in what was perceived as a team weakness? And they’ve played well despite not having safety Malik Hooker (lost for the season to an Achilles injury in Week 2) and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (who missed his second consecutive start with a stomach ailment that required a procedure).

In all fairness, who the Colts played had something to do with this. Darnold hit Rhodes and Carrie on the numbers. They were ridiculously bad picks. And this defense reminded Vikings fans why Cousins is far from an elite quarterback and can be easily rattled with pressure.

Much better quarterbacks are on the schedule, most notably, NFL MVP Lamar Jackson of Baltimore, Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, and "Big" Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh.

The Colts secondary has to prove it can match the effort of a front seven that has registered 10 sacks (counting two from blitzing defensive backs). We’ve watched Buckner throw offensive linemen around — he did it again on Sunday in forcing a third-down incompletion. We know linebacker Darius Leonard is a tackle machine who leads this unit with his indefatigable intensity.

Now these guys will go up against quarterback Nick Foles, who Colts head coach Frank Reich knows well from when they won a Super Bowl together in Philadelphia. Expect the Bears to announce Foles will start after he replaced the ineffective Mitchell Trubisky and threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Chicago from 16 points down to a 30-26 road win on Sunday at Atlanta.

The Bears defense, coached by former Colts head coach and now defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, still has one of the best NFL players on the planet in outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

But here’s the thing about the Bears. They’ve beaten the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, and Atlanta Falcons. Yeah, those three teams are a combined 1-8, just like the Colts’ three foes.

That Mack-led Bears defense has allowed 62 points whereas the Colts have yielded just 45.

The Colts won’t look past the next game, but for the purpose of driving home a big-picture perspective, the Browns have taken a somewhat similar path to the Colts. They lost their opener — well, they got embarrassed 38-6 at Baltimore — then regrouped with back-to-back home wins over the Cincinnati Bengals (35-30) and Washington (34-20).

There’s a fine line in the NFL between being a legit playoff team or a squad that plays like it at times but not against the tougher opponents.

We’re still trying to size up these Colts in their bid to make the playoffs, something this franchise has done only once in five years.

All the positives exist to suggest anything is possible. What we see in the next two games should shed more light on if that early assessment is realistic.

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(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is phillipbwilson24@yahoo.com.)