MINNEAPOLIS — What caught our eye during the Indianapolis Colts’ 34-6 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium. Most important, their fifth consecutive win over the Vikings kept their flickering playoff hopes alive, although the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans didn’t help with last-minute victories.
Offensive overload: Go figure. Relying on yet another starting offensive line combination – the 35th in Andrew Luck’s 68-game regular-season career – and facing the Vikings’ vaunted defense, it was the Luck-led offense that dominated and took the wind out of Minnesota’s legendary Vikings horn. Where was this offense last Sunday in the lackluster loss to Houston with so much on the line?
The Colts bolted to a 27-0 halftime lead – its largest since a 30-0 first-half cushion against the Jaguars in 2014 – by mixing Frank Gore’s power running with Luck’s spread-it-around passing. They piled up 281 total yards and 21 first downs on 47 snaps, in large part because Luck converted 5-of-8 times on third down.
The Colts’ first-half possessions were over-the-top impressive: field goal, touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. Luck passed for 183 yards and a 27-yard touchdown to tight end Erik Swoope. The running game gashed the Vikings’ No. 2-ranked defense for three rushing TDs, one from Gore and two from Robert Turbin.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the offensive efficiency was the ability to sustain drives. Consecutive second-quarter TD drives covered 92 and 91 yards. Luck’s 50-yard TD to Phillip Dorsett in the fourth quarter capped an 88-yard possession.
“We managed to establish a rhythm early . . . run, pass,’’ Luck said. “We prepared, practiced and we came out and executed. We got the fast start we wanted, a good finish to the half, a fast start to the second half.
“It all seemed to work out.’’
Here’s where we remind you the Vikings defense entered the game No. 1 in fewest points allowed (19.8). The most points it had allowed in a game: 26.
When Luck was pulled from the game in the fourth quarter, he had completed 21-of-28 for 250 yards, two TDs – Swoope’s first career TD, the 50-yard laser to Dorsett – and a 125.6 rating. His 21 completions were spread among eight receivers. He finished the game with a glove on his throwing hand to protect a cut on his thumb.
O-line steps up: So much was made of Luck working behind yet another starting line combo, and the latest featuring three rookies. Pagano was defiant Friday, insisting the group would hold up.
Chalk this one up to the ever-optimistic Pagano. Luck wasn’t sacked for the first time this season and just the seventh time in his 68-game career. He had been sacked 37 times in his first 12 starts. The right-side combination of guard Joe Haeg and tackle LeRaven Clark stepped up. Center Ryan Kelly was the third rookie up front.
“Nobody thought the O-line was going to come and do the job that they did,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “They all got game balls. Those guys manned up.’’
The Vikings ranked third in the league with 35 sacks in 13 games. Not only didn’t they increase their total, they were credited with only two hits on Luck.
Delightful defense: Indy’s dominance was comprehensive. While the offense had its way with the Vikings No. 2-ranked defense, its No. 29-ranked defense exposed Sam Bradford as a dink-and-dunker who’s prone to mistakes when under pressure. The first half? The Colts limited Minnesota to 69 yards and two first downs on 13 plays.
And then there’s this. Minnesota had the ball for just 6 minutes, 28 seconds. That’s the smallest first-half time of possession in the NFL this season.
The tone was set early and lasted throughout. By game’s end, the Colts had matched a season high with five sacks and generated three takeaways. Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams snuffed consecutive first-half drives by forcing and recovering an Adrian Peterson fumble and intercepting Bradford.
Erik Walden got to Bradford for a pair of sacks, increasing his career-high total to 10. Robert Mathis, back after missing two games with a biceps injury, showcased his signature sack/strip/forced fumble skills in the third quarter. His 46th sack/forced fumble extended his own NFL record.
The other sacks went to Zach Kerr and T.Y. McGill. Linebacker Edwin Jackson and rookie safety led the Colts with seven tackles each.
Gore-d: What a difference a week makes. Seven days after logging just 10 carries in the loss to the Texans – and being none too happy about it – Gore was the workhorse in the blowout of the Vikings. He carried a season-high 26 times for 101 yards. Gore set the tone in the first half, pounding Minnesota for 73 yards on 18 carries.
It marked Gore’s second 100-yard game of the season. Not impressed? You should be. The last time a Colts running back eclipsed 100 yards twice in one season was Joseph Addai in 2007. The last time the team had two 100-yard rushing games was 2010 – Addai and Donald Brown.
And then there’s this: Sunday was the 18th time in Gore’s 12-year career he had at least 25 rushing attempts. His teams now are 17-1 in those games.
Medical update: The only injury of note during the game, according to Pagano, was linebacker Chris Carter’s shoulder injury. The severity of the injury wasn’t immediately known.
Playoff outlook: Shortly after the Colts had completed their blowout of the Vikings, the magnitude of it was diminished.
They returned home 7-7, but still a game behind Houston (8-6) and Tennessee (8-6) in the AFC South.
The Titans rallied at Kansas City and pulled out a 19-17 upset of the Chiefs on Ryan Succop’s 53-yard field goal as time expired.
Houston chased down Jacksonville 21-20 after trailing 13-0 in the second quarter and benching starting quarterback Brock Osweiler.
Backup Tom Savage led the comeback that was culminated by Lamar Miller’s 1-yard TD run with less than 3 minutes to play.
The Colts are at 11-3 Oakland Christmas Eve and finish at home against Jacksonville New Year’s Day.
The only scenario for the Colts to squeeze into the playoffs is for Houston (home against 5-8-1 Cincinnati) and Tennessee (at 2-12 Jacksonville) to lose Saturday, then for the Titans to beat the Texans in Jan. 1 regular-season finale in Nashville.
Failing that, the Colts will miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.