Colts emerge as top playoff threat as Andrew Luck dazzles

Indianapolis Colts

With the Indianapolis Colts improving to 6-5 after beating the Miami Dolphins, they sit right outside the AFC playoff picture. Andrew Luck’s triumphant return is a key reason for their emergence.

For much of their Week 12 game against the Miami Dolphins, the Colts didn’t appear to be the better team of the two playoff contenders. Both teams essentially entered in must-win situations as they chase the 6-5 Baltimore Ravens for the final AFC Wild Card spot. The Colts mounted a 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter to leave the Dolphins stunned in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Now 6-5, the Colts are a top contender to the Ravens and remain just one-game back from the Houston Texans entering Monday Night Football. They’re the hottest team outside of New Orleans, winning five of seven games.

After Week 4, I wrote how Andrew Luck had just turned in a performance that showed massive progress in his return. Since then, he’s continued his ascent, racking up 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns. Even as he tossed two interceptions to Xavien Howard on Sunday, Luck and the Colts’ offense has become one of the most cerebral in the NFL.

He’s had five straight games with a completion percentage no lower than 71 percent, and Sunday was the first time he’s been sacked since Week 5, per Pro Football Focus. Head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard had to be sporting wide smiles as their revamped offensive line once again kept Luck upright and clean throughout the afternoon.

His second-half dominance against the Dolphins was downright surgical. Of the Colts’ five second-half drives, just one went for less than seven plays. He had 12 straight completions until he finally missed on a deep pass to T.Y. Hilton on third down almost midway through the fourth quarter.

He was able to distribute the ball to nine different receivers. As usual, Hilton led the charge with an efficient day. He caught seven of 10 targets for 125 yards.

Everything works in Reich’s balanced offense despite not having a bell-cow running back or ideal receiver depth. Both Chester Rogers and Dontrelle Inman have contributed when targeted but neither would be confused for dangerous starters.

But what this team lacks in top-tier talent behind Hilton is a playmaking tight end in Eric Ebron, Luck’s willingness to allow his targets to make a play, and Reich’s ability to give clear pre-snap reads to limit risks.

Ebron’s first touchdown was a perfect example of all three of those factors. In motion to the wide side of the field, the Dolphins clearly rotate safety T.J. McDonald onto Ebron. This is the equivalent of a linebacker trying to cover an oversized receiver, and Ebron makes an athletic but not unreasonably difficult touchdown catch near the sideline.

While Ebron was successful, we can also see the effect he had in clearing out the middle of the field had Luck decided to check down. Boundary receiver Zach Pascal had beaten Howard on a five-yard in-route that may have led to a first-down. Luck had options on multiple levels.

The offense wisely builds in designed shots to take advantage of Hilton’s versatility inside and outside, and Luck’s deep placement talent. Hilton’s slot fade touchdown reception against Minkah Fitzpatrick was another display of Luck delivering a good ball despite tight coverage. His aggressiveness was rewarded.

Like the Ebron touchdown, Luck knew the look he’d see pre-snap. With Ryan Grant set into motion to reveal Bobby McCain’s assignment, he knew Hilton had the rookie Fitzpatrick in man coverage, and a subpar centerfielder in Reshad Jones over top. All he had to do is give his man a chance.

It’s the balance of short passes and designed downfield opportunities that is giving defenses nightmares. Luck’s ability to hit any throw helps give Reich even more flexibility that Carson Wentz couldn’t offer due to his scattershot accuracy.

Past Colts teams failed to create space through route combinations that opened up yards after the catch opportunities. That, in turn, forced Luck to do most of his damage through the air. It was asking too much as the league transitioned to an efficiency-over-big-play model.

The 10-point deficit that was erased was aided by disastrous and cowardly coaching from Dolphins head coach Adam Gase. Where Gase tucked his tail and took the ball out of Ryan Tannehill’s hand despite his signal-caller playing well, Reich empowered Luck. His second touchdown to Ebron, above, was one of the best throws of the game.

The duo tied the game and set-up the eventual game-winning drive a few minutes later. Luck dropped back and immediately his head can be seen looking left-center. He quickly revealed his intentions by throwing to his right after he was able to hold McDonald with his eyes and open a small window for Ebron to sit.

The timing and confidence of this decision is a good example of how Luck has distinguished himself as elite again this year. His progression throughout the year has been substantial. He didn’t have the physical capability or confidence to try this same throw within the first month of the season.

There was no better example of their faith in Luck’s playmaking than his final virtuoso and pass attempt of the game. Unlike Miami, who tried to run the clock out in third-and-long situations twice, Reich had four receivers go deep with one leaking back as a checkdown option.

Miami was able to produce pressure, but Luck was able to duck it and find a wide open launch pad. He quickly squared his body and delivered a strike to Rogers more than 30 yards downfield in the air. It was a jaw-dropping display of poise, awareness, athleticism, and arm talent, all in mere seconds.

With road trips to Jacksonville, Houston, and Tennessee left, with home contests against Dallas and the New York Giants sandwiched between, the Colts have a favorable schedule to win the majority of their five games. This season has already been a success, but a trip to the playoffs should earn Reich Coach of the Year consideration.

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