Broncos at Colts: Areas of interest

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 14: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass against the Denver Broncos during the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 14, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
    Broadcast: CBS4
    Avoid a letdown

These guys have been here before, remember?  Two-game winning streak that stoked the fan base and created early-season momentum. The next step against an AFC West team that was coming off a dismal performance.

The Colts headed into week 4 with consecutive wins over Tennessee and Atlanta. Next up, at Lucas Oil, no less: the Oakland Raiders, who had been smacked around by Minnesota 34-14 the previous week. A lethargic start and sloppy performance (about a half-dozen dropped passes) contributed to a 31-24 loss.

Here we are again. Indy’s coming off impressive wins over a pair of legitimate opponents – at Kansas City, home against Houston – and is perched atop the AFC South. Next up, at Lucas Oil: the Broncos, who were overwhelmed by the Chiefs 30-6 in Denver last Sunday.

Some level of slippage would natural, but not accepted or acceptable. Not if the Colts are to be a serious contender in December.

The Raiders game aside, players have heeded Frank Reich’s weekly – daily – 1-0 message.

“It guards you to a certain extent,’’ center Ryan Kelly said. “Whenever you lose, you feel the sting. The 1-0 (mantra) sets you back to a standard on Wednesday. We lost at home to Oakland who we had rolled the year before. (Losing) humbles you. If you don’t have complete focus and take care of your business every week, anybody can beat you.

“Same thing now. You beat a division opponent then come out here with the 1-0 mantra. It’s really a belief system.’’

Tight games

We’re six games into the season and the Colts have separated themselves from the rest of the NFL. They’re the only team to be involved in all one-score games. Get used to it. Generally speaking, this bunch isn’t built to either pull away from opponents or be pulled away from. Since Reich’s arrival, 14 of their 22 games have been decided by 8 points or fewer. The 8-6 record in those games isn’t overly impressive, but they’ve won eight of their last 11.

“I do think there is something to learning how to win close games, keeping poise and making plays in the clutch,’’ Reich said.

Seldom have the Colts displayed self-destructive tendencies. They’re among the NFL’s best in third-down (No. 7) and red-zone (No. 6) efficiency. They’re averaging just 5.5 penalties (No. 2) and 40.7 penalty yards (No. 1) per game. They’ve suffered six turnovers, tied for fourth-fewest in the league.

It’s worth noting the Broncos are 1-4 in one-possession games. Imagine how much better they’d be sitting in week 8 had they not lost tight games to the Raiders (24-16), Chicago (16-14) and Jacksonville (26-24).

What’s up on offense this week?

The strength of the offense is its diversity. At Arrowhead Stadium, the Colts were in bullish mode as they piled up 180 rushing yards, including 132 from Marlon Mack. Jacoby Brissett finished with 151 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 61.1 passer rating. Last week, the Texans were hellbent on not allowing that to happen again. They crowded the box and limited Indy’s ground game to 62 yards, 44 from Mack.

No problem. Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni turned Brissett loose, and he responded with the best game of his brief career: 326 yards, four TDs, a 126.7 rating.

So, now what? Although Denver’s season is teetering, first-time head coach/long-time defensive whiz Vic Fangio brings a stout defense to Lucas Oil (No. 4 in total yards allowed, No. 8 in scoring and No. 3 against the pass). We expect Reich to make an attempt at re-establishing Mack behind his oft-times dominate offensive line, even if the Broncos follow Houston’s lead.

“You’ve still got to be committed on the run,’’ he said. “We have a mentality like we can run versus a heavy box. You’re going to face it. Our mentality is we’ve got to be able to do that.’’

Denver’s run defense ranks in the middle of the pack, allowing averages of 107.3 yards per game and 4.1 per attempt. Twice, it’s been overwhelmed. The Bears piled up 153 yards and the Jaguars 269. The other five games: averages of 65.8 yards per game and 2.9 per attempt.

Pressure, pressure, pressure

We’re back to Football 101. Pressuring the QB is paramount. That in mind, it’s hard to miss the disparate paths these teams are following. The Colts’ pass protection ranks No. 2 in sacks allowed per attempt while the Broncos check in at No. 28. Brissett has been sacked 7 times. Joe Flacco absorbed 8 against the Chiefs and has gone down 23 times on the year.

Justin Houston leads the Colts’ pressure package with 4 sacks, including 3 in the last two games. Denver still is waiting for Von Miller to get untracked. He’s sitting with 2.5.

The Colts won’t be lulled to sleep by Miller’s lack of production. His 100.5 career sacks are second among active players (Terrell Suggs has 137.5).

“You see him getting double-teamed, triple-teamed, every way that you can address an impact player like that,’’ Reich said. “He really hasn’t lost anything. He still commands that respect. We certainly hold him in that regard.’’

One interesting note on a Denver pass rush that sits with just 13 sacks: 12 have come in two games.

And the winner is: Colts 24, Broncos 13

We should just copy and paste what we mentioned when the Raiders were in town. Playoff-caliber teams find a way to win this game. This starts a four-game stretch against struggling teams. Denver (2-5), Pittsburgh (2-4), Miami (0-6) and Jacksonville (3-4) are a combined 7-19. Take advantage of it. Period.

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