INDIANAPOLIS – It’s time for the Indianapolis Colts to get back to work.
Players and coaches got the chance to recharge during the team’s bye week. They’ll resume practice Wednesday as they get ready to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday (1 p.m. kickoff, CBS4).
The Colts improved to 5-5 with their 10-6 win against the New England Patriots in Germany; the next stretch of games will prove key to their playoff ambitions. They’re already in the thick of the AFC postseason race; string together a few wins, and they could separate themselves from the pack.
“To be in the race with seven games left is huge for our football team, but we’ve got to take it one week at a time and go out and execute. [We have to] win this week, and that’s what we care about,” said head coach Shane Steichen during his Monday media availability.
Over their next three games, the Colts don’t play a single team with a winning record. The Bucs are 4-6; the Tennessee Titans are 3-7; and the Cincinnati Bengals, reeling with star quarterback Joe Burrow out for the season, are 5-5.
Don’t expect Steichen to look too far ahead at the schedule.
“The biggest thing for us is control what we can control, is what I told the team. Let’s be 1-0 each week and to think about the future. Let’s think about Tampa Bay and we’ll worry about the next one when it comes.”
Veteran wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie has seen playoff action with the Buffalo Bills. McKenzie, who came to Indy as a free agent in the offseason, said many counted the Colts out at the beginning of the season. He noted that the team has positioned itself to stay in the postseason hunt.
“We could possibly do some things and make a playoff run,” McKenzie said. “I’m happy to see where we’re headed. I’m happy to see where we’re going.”
The AFC playoff field is muddled right now. If the playoffs started today (reminder: they do not), the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) would get the final spot. But the 5-5 Colts—and several other teams whose records are hovering around .500—are right in the middle of it.
The Colts have a head-to-head matchup against Pittsburgh in Week 15. It could all set up an interesting Week 18 home game against the 6-4 Houston Texans, currently slotted sixth in the playoff standings.
But those future matchups don’t matter much if the Colts don’t take care of the present, and that’s why the week-to-week message to take things one game at a time is so important.
Steichen spent his Sunday flipping around different games around the league. Eight games this week were decided by seven points or fewer. The margins are tight. Execution and efficiency are key. And the first-year head coach knows his team, which lost rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson in Week 5, has had much to overcome.
“There’s going to be adversity in this league. You never know when it’s going to come. We had a stretch there where we lost three in a row. How do we bounce back from that? As a coach, our message to the team is stay consistent through our process and getting back on track,” Steichen said.
“Playing your best football in November and December, winning two in a row, and now having the chance to win three in a row, is big. Maintain that process, maintain the consistency, maintain the relentless effort throughout the week so we can give ourselves a chance to win on Sundays.”
For players, the message is loud and clear. Defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo, who leads the team with six sacks and has emerged in recent weeks as a game-wrecker, spoke Monday about the impact Steichen has had on the team’s culture.
“He really pushes everybody to be their best. He expects the best, he expects high-level performances, and I don’t think he’ll accept anything less,” Odeyingbo said. “And I think that resonates with the players. I think he has full faith in every player, and he shows that. It gives everybody confidence in our own abilities and confidence in each other.”
Steichen on Josh Downs
When asked about the play of rookie wide receiver Josh Downs, Steichen practically gushed—well, at least as much as the levelheaded coach can gush during a media availability.
“The feel he has for the game, growing up in a football background and being around it, the way he prepares week in and week out, is huge. You see the growth. You see the steps that he makes,” Steichen said of Downs.
Downs, a rookie out of North Carolina, grew up in a football family. His father, running back Gary Downs, played six years in the NFL. His uncle, defensive back Dre’ Bly, is a Super Bowl champion.
Downs is second on the team in receiving with 43 catches for 523 yards. He’s grabbed a pair of touchdowns and has eight receptions of 20 or more yards. He’s also second on the team in first-down catches behind only Michael Pittman.
His penchant for big plays is apparent, even when he’s injured. Downs was on a “pitch count” against the Patriots because of a knee injury he’s been dealing with on and off during the season. But even though he played only 15 snaps, his impact was impossible to miss in Germany.
“He continues to make big-time plays in big-time situations for us,” Steichen said of the rookie receiver.
Case in point: with the Colts backed up at their own 10-yard line and facing 3rd and 5, quarterback Gardner Minshew was in trouble. The team couldn’t afford to punt with so much time on the clock. Minshew bought some time, and Downs adjusted his route.
The result: a 28-yard completion in which Downs laid out for the ball to pick up a key first down that forced the Patriots to burn their timeouts and allowed the Colts to flip the field position. The defense secured the win with an interception.
Jelani Woods update
Fans hoping to see talented tight end Jelani Woods return soon will be disappointed.
The third-round pick in 2022 has been on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. He kept reaggravating it while trying to get back on the field.
Steichen revealed Monday that Woods injured his other hamstring.
“Jelani actually had a setback with his other hamstring during the rehab,” Steichen said. “So, that’s where that’s at right now.”
Steichen didn’t speculate on whether the setback would bring an end to Woods’ second season.