This was an atypical year for the Colts, who for the first time since 2002 lost three games in a row and failed to reach 12 victories. So why are they in the playoffs for the ninth straight season? Because they recommitted to their running game in December.
That's not to say Indy was three yards and a cloud of dust. Far from it. When you have Peyton Manning at quarterback, often all you need is the illusion of a running game, and the Colts were 8--0 when they rushed at least 24 times in a game. During a late-season stretch in which the Colts lost four of five, they failed to rush more than 20 times in each of the defeats. Manning also experienced the worst three-game stretch of his career from Week 11 to Week 13, throwing 11 interceptions, four of which were returned for touchdowns.
Forcing opponents to honor the run is critical for Indy because it makes Manning's play-action fakes more effective. Defenders must hold their ground for a step or two, which allows receivers to get downfield or find holes in zone coverages. A capable running game also brings a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, which creates additional passing opportunities down the field.
It helps that running back Joseph Addai has returned from a neck injury. He's not only the Colts' best runner but also their best pass-blocking halfback. Second-year back Donald Brown flashed promise in a big December win over Jacksonville, running for 129 yards, but he has yet to show he can consistently carry the load, and he is not as skilled at protecting the pocket.
Regardless, Manning will not have his full complement of targets, with tight end Dallas Clark (wrist) and receivers Anthony Gonzalez (knee) and Austin Collie (concussion) sidelined. Those absences—and the lack of a consistent ground game—contributed to Indy's inability to overcome fourth-quarter deficits. Last year the Colts won seven games in which they were tied or trailed in the fourth quarter; this year they were 2--6.
On defense Indianapolis surrendered more than 30 points five times and lost each of those games. The defending AFC champs are down to their third-string strong safety, Aaron Francisco, because of injuries to Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt, who are out for the year. They've also had injuries at cornerback.
Indy is a different defense at home, however, which augurs well for Saturday's matchup against the Jets. The Colts have held six opponents to 24 or fewer points, and four to 17 or less. Crowd noise especially helps ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis get a quarter-step advantage on blockers.
One way to limit opponents' scoring is to control the football. And the best way to do that is to run effectively. Strange as it sounds for a Manning-quarterbacked team, the ground game will be the key to Indy's postseason fate.