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Colts vs. Cowboys: What to watch for Sunday

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 25: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts warms up before the game against the Miami Dolphins at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 25, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast: FOX59

  • Carry on, or compensate? The overriding question heading into the latest win-or-else game for the Colts revolves around T.Y. Hilton’s availability. One of the NFL’s hottest receivers didn’t practice all week while undergoing treatment for an ankle injury. The Colts haven’t had a player miss an entire week of practice and suit up on Sunday, but Hilton could be the outlier.

Frank Reich was as non-committal on Hilton’s status as he’s been with any player this year.

“Generally speaking, not practicing Friday would not be good . . . it’s still up in the air,’’ he said. “It’s touch-and-go.

“We’re hoping for the best.’’

And for good reason. Over the past five games, Hilton has been the offensive catalyst with 36 receptions, 633 yards and two TDs. Even a subpar Hilton would force the Cowboys to at the very least pay attention to him.

If he misses a third game, Andrew Luck might lean more on Eric Ebron, who’s tied for the league lead with 12 TD catches. But it’ll take a group effort from the receivers to cover Hilton’s absence and maximize Ebron’s effectiveness. We’re looking at you, Zach Pascal. And you, Ryan Grant. And you, Chester Rogers. Pascal is coming off his best game of the season: five catches, 68 yards, one TD at Houston.

Reich needs to find a way to get Grant more involved. Remember when he had 8 catches for 59 yards in the season opener? He’s had just 7 catches for 63 yards in his last six games.

  • Deal with Dallas D: This is one of those strength vs. strength match-ups. The Colts are riding Luck (34 TDs, second in the league) and an offense that ranks 8th in total yards (382.4) and scoring (26.8). They have allowed the second-fewest sacks in the league (16), and have the best sack-to-pass attempt ratio (1:34.4).

Dallas? Yep, it starts with D. The Cowboys are 4th overall (313.4), 2nd in scoring (18.9) and 3rd against the run (86.8). They’re allowing a league-low 3.6 yards per attempt. DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford lead a pass rush that has generated 35 sacks. Leighton Vander Esch is in the midst of a stellar rookie season and mainstay Sean Lee might return after missing time with a hamstring injury.

This would be a great time for the Colts to find a way to re-establish their run game behind Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. In five games since posting consecutive 200-plus yard games against Buffalo and Oakland, they’ve averaged 78.4 yards per game and 3.4 yards per attempt.

The expected return of center Ryan Kelly, who’s missed the last three games with a sprained knee, should help the run game and pass protection. Right guard Mark Glowinski is out with an ankle injury, with Joe Haeg his likely replacement.

  • The Cooper Effect: The Cowboys’ offense has been in a different gear since the Oct. 22 trade with Oakland delivered Amari Cooper to the huddle. In his six games, the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft has been the NFL’s most prolific receiver: 40 catches, 642 yards, 6 TDs. He’s also accounted for 32 first downs, which has greatly boosted Dallas’ third-down efficiency. It was 31.9 percent without Cooper, 49.4 with him.

The Colts are coming off one of their better all-around defensive performances. In the win at Houston, they limited the Texans to 315 total yards, including 226 through the air. Led by cornerback Pierre Desir, the secondary held DeAndre Hopkins to a season-low 36 yards on four catches and 10 targets.

It was a collective effort, one that needs to be replicated. The defensive front kept Houston’s running game in check (3.6 yards per carry) and the entire unit harassed Deshaun Watson (5 sacks, 2 additional pressures). Dallas’ Zak Prescott has thrived with Cooper at his disposal and Ezekiel Elliott at his side. But he’s also been sacked a league-high 48 times and been susceptible to mistakes as evidenced by his league-high 12 fumbles, six of which he’s lost.

  • The Zeke Effect: Speaking of Elliott, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft represents the stiffest challenge for a Colts’ run defense that has flexed its muscles all season. Indy is allowing averages of 102.9 yards per game (8th in the league) and 3.8 per attempt (6th), and is one of four teams yet to allow a 100-yard rusher.

And now, Zeke. He leads the NFL in rushing (1,262 yards), rushing attempts (268), 100-yard games (7) and total yards from scrimmage (1,764). He already has joined Herschel Walker as the only Cowboy to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in a season.

As much as the Colts must keep tabs on Cooper, they cannot allow Elliott to go off and give Prescott a pick-your-poison approach.

“These guys are the best so it will be a great challenge,’’ Reich said. “It’s going to take every person over there, but I think defenses like that challenge.

“I know our defense will like that challenge.’’

Elliott has rushed for at least 100 yards in four of his last five games, averaging 116.4 yards per game and 4.9 per attempt.

“If Zeke has 95 yards,’’ Reich said, “that might be considered a win, you know what I mean?’’

  • And the winner is: Colts 27, Cowboys 23. This, it must be mentioned, is if Hilton is able to play and be moderately effective. We just don’t envision the Colts having enough firepower to pull off a win without their primary playmaker. The bottom line is both teams need this one. A sixth straight win gives 8-5 Dallas the NFC East title. The 7-6 Colts remain in serious pursuit of the second AFC wild-card spot, and this is no time for a stumble, especially at home.

“Most people call this the dash for cash,’’ Ebron said. “So you just try to win.’’