INDIANAPOLIS – During a December drive that requires their best, the Indianapolis Colts are regaining their health.
Three starters – left tackle Anthony Castonzo, linebacker Bobby Okereke and safety Khari Willis – made progress during the week of practice and have a shot at returning to the lineup for Sunday’s pivotal meeting with the Raiders in Las Vegas.
In fact, Willis, who missed last Sunday’s game at Houston with back and quadriceps injuries, “is good to go,’’ coach Frank Reich said Friday on a Zoom conference call.
Castonzo, who missed the Texans game with a sprained MCL in his right knee, and Okereke, who’s missed the last two games with an ankle injury, are questionable for Sunday and likely will play barring a setback.
All injuries are handled differently and Friday game designations are a team’s estimation of a player’s likelihood to be available for the game. But it’s worth noting the Colts have listed 29 players “questionable’’ over the previous 11 weeks, and only three have not played – tight end Noah Togiai (knee), who was placed on the injured reserve list prior to the Houston game, and cornerback/kick returner Isaiah Rogers, twice with a knee injury.
The importance of Castonzo’s return can’t be overstated. The Colts won for just the third time in the 14 games he’s missed with an injury at Houston, but left tackle was an issue against the Texans.
Five plays into the game, backup Le’Raven Clark tore his left Achilles. He was replaced by Chaz Green, who gave up two of the season-high 3 sacks quarterback Philip Rivers absorbed. Rivers had been sacked just 10 times in the previous 11 games and the 15 total sacks allowed by the Colts are the third-fewest in the league.
Castonzo means that much to the offensive line, which contributed to the team not placing him on the injured reserve list when he sprained his right knee Nov. 29 against Tennessee. Going on IR would have meant missing at least three games.
“We thought there was a chance that we could get him back before then, but we don’t know,’’ Reich said earlier this week. “He is the kind of player if you’re ever going to take a chance with at that position and because of who he is. ‘Let’s not lock ourselves in in case he has a speedy recovery.’
“We all know he is very meticulous and is doing everything possible.’’
Castonzo did not practice Wednesday, but was limited Thursday and Friday. The key will be how the knee responds Saturday.
“He’ll be questionable for the game,’’ Reich said, “but has taken good steps.’’
The only player ruled out of the Raiders game is Rigoberto Sanchez. The veteran punter underwent surgery Oct. 1 to have a cancerous tumor removed.
Sanchez obviously missed the Texans game, but has returned to the Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center with his teammates and is interacting in special teams meetings led by coordinator Bubba Ventrone.
“I’m really excited,’’ Reich said. “He’s back in the building. He’s had a good week, making really good progress. Very optimistic and very happy for Rigo.
“Bubba’s calling his name out in special teams meetings today, asking him a question about something. Just good to have him here.’’
Similarly to Castonzo, the team did not place Sanchez on IR.
Does Reich believe there’s a chance for Sanchez to return this season?
“I probably do, yeah,’’ he said.
As much as Reich preaches a one-week-at-a-time message to his players, he made it clear the understood the urgency of the month of December.
Prior to the visit to Houston, he laid everything out in front of them.
“We acknowledged that we’re in December and we determine our own destiny in December,’’ he said. “That’s where you want to be in this league. When you’re in December, you want to be determining your own destiny.
“Basically the message from there was the way we determine our own destiny is what we do on the practice field. You guys know that’s how we roll. How we handle the practice field is going to determine how we play and whether or not we win the game.
“We’re in December and we determine our own destiny. That’s a good place to be.’’
The Colts take an 8-4 record and No. 7 seed in the AFC playoff picture with them to Las Vegas. The Raiders are 7-5 and the No. 8 seed.
Even though the Colts still would be tied with the Raiders at 8-5 with a loss, they would lose another head-to-head tiebreaker in pursuit of an AFC wild-card spot if they’re unable to overtake Tennessee (8-4) in the AFC South. The Titans hold the division tiebreaker with a better division record.
The Colts already lose possible tiebreakers with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns.
A look at the remaining schedules of the teams likely in the AFC mix in December:
- Colts (8-4): at Las Vegas (7-5), Houston (4-8), at Pittsburgh (11-1), Jacksonville (1-11).
- Tennessee Titans (8-4): at Jacksonville (1-11), Detroit (5-7), at Green Bay (9-3), at Houston (4-8).
- Buffalo Bills (9-3): Pittsburgh (11-1), at Denver (4-8), at New England (6-7), Miami (8-4).
- Miami Dolphins (8-4): Kansas City (11-1), New England (6-7), at Las Vegas (7-5), at Buffalo (8-3).
- Cleveland Browns (9-3): Baltimore (7-5), at New York Giants (5-7), at New York Jets (0-12), Pittsburgh (11-1).
- Las Vegas Raiders (7-5): Colts (8-3), Los Angeles Chargers (3-9), Miami (8-4), at Denver (4-8).
- Baltimore Ravens (7-5): at Cleveland (9-3), Jacksonville (1-11), New York Giants (5-7), at Cincinnati (2-9-1).
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.