INDIANAPOLIS – A season that began with high expectations – win the AFC South, remember? – has been reduced to two scenarios: the Indianapolis Colts entering the offseason with a win over the team with the NFL’s worst record, or enduring their longest losing streak since 2011.
And, of course, keeping track of how Sunday’s meeting with the 2-13-1 Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium impacts next April’s draft.
Each team has significant motivation to lose. A loss guarantees the Texans the 1st overall pick in the draft. A seventh-consecutive loss could push the Colts, who currently sit 5th in the draft order, up a rung. A win might nudge them back to 6th.
But there’s more, on an individual level.
Linebacker Zaire Franklin needs five tackles to break Shaquille Leonard’s team record for tackles in a season. Leonard piled up 163 as a rookie in 2018.
Franklin’s 159 tackles rank 4th in the NFL.
Meanwhile, wideout Michael Pittman Jr. enters Sunday with 96 receptions and 895 yards. The 2020 second-round draft is on the brink of joining Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark as the only Colts to reach the 100-catch level in a season.
“At this point of the season it’s not really the main focus,’’ said Pittman. “The focus is just winning this last game and whatever happens, happens. I’m just focused on making it as easy for Sam (Ehlinger) as possible and pulling out this last one so we can go into this offseason and not feel even worse than we already feel.’’
Pressed on the issue, Pittman admitted he’d enjoy joining the Colts’ exclusive 100-catch club. He had 40 receptions as a rookie and bumped that to 88 last year.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “It’s cool to be in that same category of names . . . those are next-level guys.
“It’s nice to get in that circle. Definitely cool, but not something I’ve put too much thought in.’’
Wayne, who’s in his first year as receivers coach, is more interested in Pittman reaching 1,000 yards for a second straight season. He led the Colts with 1,082 yards in 2021.
“It’s ugly if you have 100 catches and you don’t have at least 1,000 yards,’’ Wayne said.
There have been 142 100-catch seasons in NFL history. Seven have failed to generate at least 1,000 yards – five by running backs, which is understandable, and two by wideouts. The only receivers to fall short of 1,000 yards with 100 catches: Miami’s Jarvis Landry in 2017 (112 catches, 987 yards) and the Chargers’ Keenan Allen in 2020 (100 for 992).
“It’s yards, you know?’’ said Wayne. “I could throw you a million bubble screens. Ain’t no sense throwing bubble screens and you’ve got 100 yards. It don’t add up.
“We gotta see if he can get to the 1,000-yard mark.’’
Wayne and Harrison share Colts’ records with eight 1,000-yard seasons and four with 100 catches.
Interim coach Jeff Saturday is familiar with players needing X-number of catches or yards in a season finale to reach the 1,000 or 100 levels.
In 2009, the 14-1 Colts headed to snowy, frigid Buffalo for the final game of the regular season. They had the No. 1 seed wrapped up, even after tossing away a shot at an unbeaten season the previous week. After leading the New York Jets 15-10 midway through the third quarter, the starters were yanked and the Jets capitalized and rallied for a 29-15 win.
Heading into the meaningless season finale, Wayne needed five receptions and Clark seven to reach 100. Each already had piled up 1,000 yards.
Most of the front-liners started the game, even with a minus-2 wind chill and heavy, blowing snow.
“After they benched everybody and let them rest, ‘Let’s go out and play to get them (the individual marks),’’ Saturday said with a laugh. “Quick screens in the middle of a snowstorm, all loads of fun.’’
Clark finished with seven catches for 52 yards. Catch No. 100 on the season was a screen pass for a loss of 7 yards.
Wayne finished with five catches for 21 yards. Catch No. 100 was for no gain. He had a long of 10. The others: 3, 4, 4, 0 yards.
Offensive coordinator Tom Moore loaded up on screens to Wayne and Clark, which was reflected in Peyton Manning’s stat line: 14 of 18 for 94 yards. That’s 5.2 yards per attempt and 6.7 per completion.
Fifteen of Manning’s 18 attempts targets Wayne and Clark.
What to play for?
Trust us, no one associated with the Colts is interested in improving the team’s draft positioning.
“It’s playing for the guy beside you . . . you have one, final opportunity,’’ Saturday said. “We all signed up for a minimum of 17 and you’re excited about every opportunity you get.
“You want to go out and leave your best on the field.’’
Ending the season on a high note was a bullet point as Saturday addressed the team this week. The Colts have lost six straight and nine of their last 10.
“We talked about how different a season feels when you finish with a win as opposed to finishing with a loss and just the entire offseason,’’ he said. “That’s going to be the same conversation that Lovie’s (Smith) having with his group down there and every other team in the NFL that’s not in the playoffs.
“There’s nothing easy about it, but you have to go out and put your best foot forward Sunday.’’
Quarterback Nick Foles (ribs) and tight end Kylen Granson (ankle) have been ruled out of Sunday’s game. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (wrist) and cornerback Brandon Facyson (concussion) are questionable.
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