JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2021 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Mike Chappell – longtime Colts beat writer for the Indianapolis Star for 25 seasons now with Fox 59 – on the Colts as they enter Sunday's 2021 Week 18 game against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field.
Question: The Colts can clinch an AFC playoff berth with a victory Sunday. After being one of the NFL's hottest teams throughout the second half of the season, they lost to the Las Vegas Raiders, 23-20, this past Sunday. What's the state of the Colts entering Sunday?
Answer: Reset, reboot. We talked to [Colts Head Coach Frank] Reich Monday and somebody said, "Well, what's your biggest concern?" He said, "Really none because the body of work says we're trending up." He just thinks that their body of work says that was just a blip on the screen, and I tend to agree. They played well enough to win, but special teams had some breakdowns and the defense couldn't get off the field at the end of the game. [Quarterback] Carson Wentz just missed five or six throws that you cannot miss. And keep in mind he didn't practice last week because of COVID-19. It's funny how practice isn't really important until you don't practice. Reich said that's when you fall back on accumulated reps. That's fine for a defensive tackle or a guard. A quarterback needs to practice, and he looked like a guy that didn't practice. It (the loss to the Raiders) wasn't a complete clunker, but it certainly wasn't one of their better efforts, so I think they come back and play well Sunday. Reich has done a very, very good job of getting these guys' attention when it matters. I think they bounce back, and we'll look back on the Raiders game as, "We didn't play well, but we came back and played well."
Q: There's so much focus this season on Wentz. Assess his season.
A: Before last week I would have said he was a notch above [former Colts quarterback] Philip Rivers [in 2020]. Rivers was good enough; he was Top 11ish. After Sunday, I would say he's not quite what Rivers was last year. This is who he is, though. He has great moments and moments where you just scratch your head and say, "What the hell was that?" They're up 17-13 in the third quarter [Sunday] and [wide receiver] T.Y. Hilton gets all alone on the left side; there's a complete breakdown. He's wide open and it probably would have been a 77-yard touchdown. He overthrows him. That's what he has been. He has averaged 169 yards a game in the last seven games. That's just not good. Some of that is a byproduct that they're running the hell out of the ball. They're averaging 180 yards a game in the last eight games; it's absurd. But for these guys to do anything in the playoffs, the quarterback has to play better. At some point you're just not going run [running back Jonathan] Taylor 25 times for 140 yards; you're just not going to be able to do that. The quarterback has to make those five or six plays when it matters – not 300 yards a game, but those three or four or five plays. Too often right now he's not making them.
Q: Taylor is clearly the key to the offense. How good is he?
A: He is really good. He has a 540-yard lead over the No. 2 rusher [in the NFL this season]. The last time anybody led the league by that stretch was [Tennessee Titans running back] Chris Johnson in 2009. He's durable. He gets the tough yards. When nothing's there, he'll get you four. When something's there, he'll get you 40. He's averaging 135 yards a game over the last eight games. He's leading the league in yards from scrimmage. He's really good.
Q: Where are they defensively?
A: Decent. I don't fully trust it. There have been a couple of games where they needed a late stop and couldn't get it. They're tied for the league lead in takeaways with 33, and it's still the strangest thing because they're doing it without a consistent and reliable pass rush. The edge pass rush has really, really struggled. [Rookie] Kwity Paye is playing better than his stats; he's playing pretty well. Everything else is sort of patched together on the line. [Defensive tackle] DeForest Buckner is really good, but the edge pass rush has just not been there. The linebackers are playing well; Darius Leonard has 12 takeaways and is playing really well. The defense is good. It's not great, but it's good. The sum is better than the parts. It plays pretty well together.
Q: A lot of people see the Colts as a team that on the right day can beat anyone and maybe go all the way. Can they?
A: It's still a quarterback league. I'm not saying Wentz needs to go 20-of-28 for 320 yards. But he threw 16 of 27 for 148 against the Raiders and 45 came on a fluky touchdown to Hilton on a deflection. Without that, he throws for 103 yards. I'll give him a mulligan over missing the week [of practice] because of COVID. But if I'm the Colts, even if Sunday it's a noncompetitive game, I'd like to see the quarterback making plays when they need to made and converting eight out of 14 third downs or so. He needs to get back on track because everything is in place. Running games generally travel pretty well. Defenses travel pretty well. But you still need your quarterback to make those four or five plays. If he doesn't make it, you might get beat 23-20 like they did Sunday.