What to watch for: Colts’ playoff push could end in Oakland

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Christmas Eve meeting with the Raiders in Oakland’s Alameda Coliseum.

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m. on CBS4.

End of the line?: 

The Colts might be traveling more than 2,000 miles simply to reach the end of the line. Because of more squandered opportunities than we have time to rehash, their playoff hopes dangle by a thread. The odds of them missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98 are in the 96 percent range.

The CliffsNotes version: the Colts are eliminated from postseason consideration by kickoff if the 8-6 Tennessee Titans beat the 2-12 Jaguars in Jacksonville earlier Saturday afternoon. Even if the Jaguars pull the upset for interim coach Doug Marrone and the Colts take care of business against the Raiders, they’re gonzo if Houston defeats Cincinnati Saturday evening.

If everything falls in line for the Colts Saturday – beat the Raiders while both Houston and Tennessee lose – their path actually becomes reasonable: beat the Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium in the Jan. 1 finale and hope the Titans win at home against the Texans.

“Hopefully things can shake out and if we take care of our business these last two weeks we’ll be in the playoffs,’’ Frank Gore said.

But that’s been the trouble. The Colts haven’t taken care of their business. Any shot at returning to the postseason requires closing the season on a three-game winning streak. They’ve only won back-to-back games once this season.

They’re baaaack:

Don’t look now, but the Raiders have crawled out of their Black Hole. They’re 11-3 and relevant again after disappearing from the NFL landscape following a 48-21 thrashing at the hands of Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season. Over the next 13 seasons, the Raiders were 63-145 (.303) and failed to post a winning record.

Now, second-year coach Jack Del Rio has Oakland in the playoffs, atop the rugged AFC West and chasing New England for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Credit general manager Reggie McKenzie, whose recent drafts have delivered core players to the roster: QB Derek Carr (round 2/2014), LB Khalil Mack (round 1/2014), WR Amari Cooper (round 1/2015), S Karl Joseph (round 1/2016), DE Jihad Ward (round 2/2016).

A better Carr:

There’s no question who has bragging rights among the Carr brothers. That would be Derek, younger brother of David, taken first overall by Houston in the 2002 draft. The Texans hardly gave David Carr a chance, failing to surround him with a reliable supporting cast. That hasn’t been an issue with Derek Carr. He was voted to his second Pro Bowl this week and has established himself as one of the NFL’s brightest QBs after just three seasons. He has directed 12 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his career, including seven this season.

At issue, though, is Derek Carr’s health. His efficiency has slipped markedly since dislocating his right pinkie finger against Carolina Nov. 27. He’s altered his game and taken every snap from the shotgun or pistol formation. His productivity and efficiency have been noticeably off the last two games: a 50.7 completion percentage, 62.5 passer rating with one touchdown and one interception. The Raiders offense still ranks No. 6 in yardage (377.8 per game) and No. 3 in scoring (26.9). But after scoring at least 30 points in seven of their first 12 games, the Raiders have scored 32 the last two games in a 21-13 loss at Kansas City and 19-16 win at San Diego.

Carr’s workload should be lightened by Oakland’s No. 6-ranked run game. Latavius Murray is averaging 4.2 yards and has 12 touchdowns on 175 rushing attempts while rookie Jalen Richard offers solid backup support with 422 yards on 74 carries.

Colts D peaking:

If nothing else, coordinator Ted Monachino’s defense is showing a nice closing kick. It has allowed only two touchdowns in the last three games while missing several front-line players and relying on young backups.

“Impressed, yes. Surprised, no,’’ Monachino said. “There are a lot of these guys that as we’ve gone through this process, whether we’ve added them last in the process or they’ve been here all along, you see that that player has the potential to play well (in games).’’

We’re taking nothing away from the defense, but they’ve been effective of late against some of the NFL’s meekest offenses: the Vikings are tied for 25th in scoring, the Titans are 28th and the Jets 30th.

Now comes the Carr-led Raiders. Despite the late lull, Oakland still features big-play potential. We’ve mentioned Carr, Murray and Richard. But let’s not forget the one-two receiving punch of Amari Cooper (74 receptions, 1,038 yards, 4 TDs) and Michael Crabtree (77, 866, 8). Tight end Clifford Walford has 30 catches, 322 yards and 2 TDs.

It all works because Carr works behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. It has allowed a league-low 15 sacks. No wonder left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Rodney Hudson were named to the Pro Bowl.

The Colts’ pass rush has generated 30 sacks, including five last Sunday at Minnesota. But Robert Mathis, Erik Walden and Trent Cole have their work cut out for them Saturday.

Stat watch:

This is what we call the game within the game. While the bottom line – the final score – is paramount, let’s not overlook a few individual milestones within reach.

Wideout T.Y. Hilton enters the weekend with 1,248 receiving yards, 50 behind Atlanta’s Julio Jones and 98 shy of setting a personal best (1,345 in ’14). He would be the first Colt since Reggie Wayne in 2007 to lead the league and join Wayne, Marvin Harrison (three times), Raymond Berry (three times) and Roger Carr as Colts to lead the league in receiving yards.

Running back Frank Gore needs 109 rushing yards to become the first Colt since Joseph Addai in 2007 to crack the 1,000-yard mark. If he gets there, he’ll join Emmitt Smith (11 times), Curtis Martin (10), Walter Payton (10) and Barry Sanders (10) as the only players in NFL history with at least nine 1,000-yard seasons.

Also, Gore needs 58 total yards from scrimmage to set an NFL record with an 11th consecutive season with at least 1,200 yards. He’s tied with Smith, Martin and Sanders with 10 straight. It’s worth noting Smith, Martin, Sanders and Payton are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And the winner is:

Raiders 34, Colts 24. As mentioned above, Monachino’s defense is on a semi-impressive roll and the Carr-led Raiders offense has been misfiring. But we’re expecting Oakland to get its act together and Indy’s D to have a tough afternoon. The only blueprint for an upset involves Andrew Luck & Co. exploiting the Raiders’ No. 30-ranked defense and keeping Mack from wrecking the game. In three games since missing the Pittsburgh loss with a concussion, Luck has completed 66.3 percent of his passes for 804 yards, 8 TDs, 2 interceptions and a 108.7 rating.

The Colts more of the same to pull the upset.

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