What to watch for Sunday as the Indianapolis Colts take on the Buffalo Bills

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 14: Quarterback Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts looks to pass against the New York Jets in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 14, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Buffalo Bills Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium:

Knock it off: The NFL can be a complicated business, or it can be simple. Putting it simply, the Colts are going to continue to struggle – a 1-5 record, a four-game losing streak – until they decide to quit extending a helping hand to the opposition. In the last three losses to Houston, New England and the New York Jets, they’re a minus-4 in turnover differential but a crippling minus-31 in point differential following turnovers. The Colts have been outscored following turnovers 44-13.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4

“We’ve got to come out of this game without turning the football over,” Frank Reich said. “It will be a big key for us.”

Luck has suffered five of his eight interceptions in the last two games, and the Jets and Pats have capitalized with 23 points: two touchdowns, one a pick-6, and three field goals.

“Turnovers, certainly too many of them,” Luck said.

Ball security will be especially critical with the offense-challenged Bills in town. They rank 31st in yards per game (222.5) and 32nd in points (12.6). They’ve scored 2 TDs on their last 39 possessions while turning the ball over six times.

The Bills need all the help they can get scoring points.

Don’t help them.

Getting healthy: Slowly but surely, the offense is beginning to resemble what we envisioned during the preseason. For the first time, four key components will be on the field at the same time – Luck, Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton, left tackle Anthony Castonzo and running back Marlon Mack. Hilton went through an uneventful week of practice – that’s a good thing – after missing two games with chest and hamstring injuries.

Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle will miss a fifth straight game with a hip injury, but Eric Ebron has helped pick up the slack with a career-best and league-high six TDs.

Hopefully Hilton’s return will help remedy the Colts’ rash of dropped passes.

“We’ve had too many,” he said. “What’s understood ain’t gotta be talked about. They know. Just catch the ball. Just focus.”

Maintain protection: So far, so good when it comes to limiting the pressure on Luck. He’s been sacked only 10 times despite throwing a league-high 288 passes. The protection has been solid even though the Colts have used five different starting offensive line combinations, and nine – nine! – different players have started.

The Bills bring the NFL’s least productive offense to town, but don’t be lulled to sleep. Their defense is legit. It’s top-10 in most meaningful categories, and has generated 19 sacks and forced a league-high 19 fumbles while recovering 7.

Former Colt Jerry Hughes is the biggest threat coming off the edge with 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits, both team highs.

Complementing Luck’s passing with Mack’s running will help. Mack produced a season-high 89 yards against the Jets, but will be tested by Buffalo’s No. 8-ranked run defense.

Force Anderson’s hand: His name’s Derek Anderson. He’s 35 and was doing whatever the vast majority of the population was doing until the Bills interrupted his family vacation with a phone call Oct. 9. In other words, he was going about his non-NFL life. The Bills believed Anderson could serve as a mentor for rookie Josh Allen, but everything changed when Allen suffered an elbow injury in the third quarter of Sunday’s 20-13 loss at Houston.

The ensuing backup option – second-year QB Nathan Peterman – wasn’t really an option. Peterman started the opener at Baltimore and finished up for Allen in Houston, but has been incredibly underwhelming: 11-of-30, 85 yards, one TD, four interceptions, a 16.7 passer rating. He suffered a pick-6 against the Ravens, and another with 23 seconds remaining that sealed the loss to Houston.

Enter Anderson. Even with less than two weeks to learn the offense, he’ll be under center. He last played as Cam Newton’s backup in 2017 and last started Dec. 4, 2016 at Seattle, when Newton was benched at the game’s outset for a dress-code violation. His only attempt was deflected and intercepted. His last legitimate start came Oct. 10, 2016 when he passed for 278 yards with two interceptions in a 17-14 loss to Tampa Bay.

Anderson has a decent track record: 10,413 yards, 60 touchdowns, 60 interceptions and a 20-27 record as a starter in 12 seasons. He went to the Pro Bowl in ’07 after passing for 3,787 yards and 29 TDs and leading Cleveland to a 10-6 record. But he’s only attempted 168 passes the last seven years.

The Colts’ priority: make Anderson make plays.

The Bills’ game plan undoubtedly will feature heavy doses of running back LeSean McCoy. The Colts witnessed his withering skills in snow-swept Buffalo in December when he pounded them a career-high 32 times for 156 yards.

Again, take away McCoy and force Anderson to carry the load while directing what almost certainly will be a scaled-back game plan.

“I do think they will simplify things, not because he is not ready, but it just makes sense to do when you’ve got a guy like that,” Reich said. “You stay within your system, you pare things down a little bit, make it simple to play fast.

“He doesn’t have to come in and win the game . . . just use the players around you.”

Vinateri Watch: Adam Vinatieri needs 10 points to surpass Morten Andersen (2,544) as the NFL’s all-time points leader. That might seem a tall order, but Vinateri has scored at least 10 points in three games this season.

And the winner is: Colts 27, Bills 17. If not Sunday, when? Early-season optimism already has been dimmed by the four-game skid. Just look around Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday and count the empty seats. A win over the Bills won’t erase the angst, but it would offer a respite from the fan base’s mounting concerns.

After Sunday, the Colts travel to 1-5 Oakland before hitting their bye. A 3-5 record at the break gives everyone a reason to hope. Anything less probably means December will be a time to jockey for prime position in next April’s draft.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51