Colts ready for stretch playoff run

The off-season is paying off for the Indianapolis Colts. The personnel additions from free agency, trades and the draft have vindicated in-house judgment as the team makes a push for the NFL playoffs.

It all looked good on paper months ago, but now it looks better on the field. Convincing Philip Rivers not to retire and sign a one-year deal to depart the West Coast and take over the Colts’ controls is an idea that has made the Colts look smart.

The persuasion that Rivers had it in him after a long career with the Chargers, after doubters carped about his play in 2019, was sweetened by a $25 million payday. But you don’t hear anyone complaining it was the wrong move.

Rivers has been sturdy in the pocket, mature, stable, a leader and has a gift for spraying his passes around to a variety of receivers. Lately, T.Y. Hilton has become, well, the second coming of T.Y. Hilton.

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Rivers has thrown for 20 touchdown passes versus 9 interceptions and has a knack for dodging defenders long enough for receivers to get open.

“I just think this guy is elite in that regard,” said coach Frank Reich Friday. “Whatever that group of elite guys are at extending plays, he’s in that mix. I have a lot of respect for him as does everybody who watches this guy play — the way he plays, the way he handles his business.”

All-star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who has made 48 tackles, is nursing an ankle injury and may not be able to go Sunday against the Houston Texans, but he has been a glue-type addition to a jelling defense that for most of the Colts’ 9-4 season to date, has been one of the best in the league.

Yes, the Colts gave up a No. 1 draft pick to the San Francisco 49ers to get Buckner, but Indianapolis was rich enough in other picks and Reich, the team, the fans and everyone who has been watching likes what they have seen from the top few guys taken in the draft.

Receiver Michael Pittman has 33 catches, averaging 12.7 yards per grab. Running back Jonathan Taylor has rushed for 759 yards at 4.5 yards per carry. Both were second-round choices. Third-round pick Julian Blackmon has been a valuable addition at safety.

The passing game is king in the NFL these days, but coaches still stress the importance of the run in providing balance. So it surprises me how premier backs seem to have lost their luster.

At the University of Wisconsin, Taylor, who is 5-foot-10 and 226 pounds, rushed for more than 6,000 yards in college while scoring 50 touchdowns and twice received the Doak Walker Award as the best runner in the college game.

I couldn’t believe it took so long for Taylor to be drafted. The guy was one of the greatest runners in college football history. But there he was for the plucking, the 41st player taken.

Taylor became a starter by default, after incumbent Marlon Mack was injured just two quarters into the season against Jacksonville. Out for the year. It was both pressure and opportunity for Taylor.

At times Reich has operated the running game by committee, but lately Taylor has been doing the heavy lifting.

Taylor’s signature game was last Sunday in the crushing of the Las Vegas Raiders when he collected 150 yards and two touchdowns. Taylor’s 62-yard run shocked me the way he slashed through the Raiders’ secondary and out-ran pursuers. I kept waiting for Raider players to dive for him, but he just kept on motoring down most of the field before they woke up.

He will keep film of that highlight on quick rewind for the rest of his life.

Friday, as the Colts put finishing touches on preparation for their Lucas Oil Stadium game hosting Houston, Taylor offered a soliloquy on what confidence means in the NFL.

It was an intriguing viewpoint. Taylor talked about how immersion in reps teaches a player what to do, but confidence in himself is knowing he can adjust on the fly when the play breaks down and doesn’t go the way it is supposed to after the snap.

What happens next is the fleeting thought of, “OK, I’m going to make this work,” he said. “It comes down to that one-on-one match-up, like, ‘I can beat this man in front of me one-on-one.

“There comes a point in time every single play when you need to have that confidence in yourself to know like, ‘I belong here and I’m going to beat this man in front of me.’”

It seems, as the end of December approaches, the end of 2020, the end of the regular season, that the Colts are showing the kind of confidence they must have to take on any team in any situation.