The Indianapolis Colts have bought themselves a chance in the AFC South race. But are they equipped to take advantage of it Thursday night?
Monday night's revelation that quarterback Andrew Luck has entered into the NFL's concussion protocol comes at a really bad time for Indianapolis. Because it is hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night at Lucas Oil Stadium to round out the slate of Thanksgiving games, Luck has three fewer days to make it through protocol.
Luck, who was injured in Sunday's 24-17 win over the Tennessee Titans early in the fourth quarter but still finished the game, seems like a long shot to make it through protocol by 8:30 Thursday night. Of the players who have been placed in protocol this year, just one has passed all the tests required to play in fewer than five days.
Given that backdrop — and some players do recover quicker than others, although most teams aren't cavalier when it comes to head injuries — it appears likely that Scott Tolzien will run the Colts in this critical game.
Tolzien, who was Aaron Rodgers' backup in Green Bay the last three years, started two games in Rodgers' stead during the 2013 season. He threw for 339 yards at the New York Giants, although he also tossed three interceptions in a 27-13 loss, and was less impressive in a game against Minnesota before getting hooked in a game the Packers rallied to tie.
Since that game, Tolzien has tossed one pass, completing it last year for four yards. Barring a stunningly quick recovery by Luck, Tolzien will throw many more passes in this one.
“We've got a guy that comes to work every single day and prepares like a starter ever since he's been in this building,” Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. “He understands and knows this offense and if that's the case, he'll go out and play winning football.”
At 5-5, the Colts are only a game back of Houston in the division, thanks to the Texans' 27-20 loss Monday night to Oakland in Mexico City. A win Thursday night would cut that deficit in half, and Houston must host San Diego, which is coming off its bye, Sunday on a short week and after the rigors of playing in 7,500-foot altitude.
So the table is set for Indianapolis, even if it doesn't have all the ingredients it would like.
“You don't ever want to be without anybody, but we have been down this road before and we have handled it well,” Pagano said. “Faced a bunch of adversity and obstacles just like everybody else.”
Pittsburgh (5-5) certainly won't display any sympathy for the Colts. It had to play New England last month without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and, predictably, lost. That was one of four straight losses that dropped the Steelers under .500.
But Pittsburgh snapped its skid Sunday with a 24-9 win at 0-11 Cleveland, enabling it to tie Baltimore for first place in the AFC North as the Ravens lost in Dallas.
“It's really big when you have a win like this,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We'd been on a losing streak, so getting a win is really going to help everybody get into a better mood. We just need to get where we want to go and where we need to go.”
Aside from having about two days of prep time before flying to Indianapolis on Wednesday, the Steelers appear to have most of the advantages in this one. Their key players are available and relatively healthy, unlike the Colts, who might also be without second-leading tackler Clayton Geathers (concussion).
Pittsburgh's point of emphasis for Thursday night might be finishing off drives. The Steelers constructed four drives of at least 11 plays at Cleveland, but settled for field goals on three of them as a spate of mistakes helped stall them out.
“We have to clean some things up from a detail standpoint when we get into the red zone,” running back LeVeon Bell said. “We got away with it (against Cleveland), but other games we may not. We'll watch the film and see what we have to clean up. The details have to be better.”
Bell was at his best against the Browns, accounting for 201 total yards from scrimmage and scoring a touchdown on the last play of the first half with a 1-yard run.
NOTES: Indianapolis is playing just its third Thanksgiving game. It's 2-0 on this holiday, winning at Detroit in 2004 and Atlanta in 2007. … Pittsburgh LB James Harrison set the franchise's all-time sacks record Sunday in Cleveland, taking Cody Kessler down to give him 77 1/2 sacks in his career and passing Jason Gildon.