Colts, Cowboys enter matchup in Indy with a head of steam
INDIANAPOLIS — Jason Garrett and Frank Reich understand the high stakes of Sunday's game.
If Dallas wins, it clinches the NFC East. If Indianapolis wins, it stays in the hunt for the AFC's final playoff spot and possibly even a division crown.
The two coaches and their players will get one more precious late-season chance to see how they stack up against another postseason contender.
"Most people call this the dash for cash," Colts tight end Eric Ebron said. "So you just try to win."
Few teams have done more winning lately than the Colts (7-6) and Cowboys (8-5).
Rather than folding after starting 1-5, Andrew Luck and Co. turned things around with six wins in seven games and tying Baltimore, Miami and Tennessee for the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff chase.
Luck's comeback has happened during perhaps the best season of his career. He has 34 touchdown passes -- second in the league and six short of his career high -- and a career-best completion rate of 67.7 percent. He is 241 yards away from the fourth 4,000-yard season of his career.
This time, Luck also is working with an improved defense that has allowed 17.1 points per game over the past seven weeks and ranks among the league's top third in sacks and negative plays. The combination has upped the ante for Indy's opponents.
"They attack you a lot of different ways," Garrett said. "It's aggressive, it's attacking and it's a balanced offense. You have to be ready for a lot of different things."
Dallas also made a dramatic midseason turn. After starting 3-5, the Cowboys made a deal for receiver Amari Cooper and everything suddenly changed.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott has charged back into the NFL rushing lead and quarterback Dak Prescott started making more potent plays. Dallas' defense has climbed to No. 4 in yards allowed.
People around town believe the Cowboys could win their first divisional-round game since the 1995 playoffs — if they make it.
"It will be a great challenge. It's going to take every person over there, but I think defenses like that challenge," Reich said when asked about slowing down Elliott. "I know our defense will like that challenge. It's not going to be easy, they are going to get some runs. If Zeke has 95 yards, that might be considered a win."
While much of the focus this weekend will be on high-profile offensive stars such as Luck and Prescott, rookie linebackers Darius Leonard and Leighton Vander Esch will play big roles, too.
The league's official stats show Leonard leading the league with 135 tackles despite missing one game with an injury. Vander Esch has played well, too. The Cowboys credit him with 136 tackles, tied for the franchise's rookie record, while league stats show him with 108 — tied for No. 6 overall and second among rookies to Leonard.
While Colts starting center Ryan Kelly could return after missing three straight games with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, Cowboys right guard Zack Martin will miss a game for the first time in his career in what would've been his first trip to his hometown.
Martin, a four-time Pro Bowler and 2014 All-Pro, sprained the MCL in his left knee during the preseason and left both games against defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia after aggravating the injury. He returned to the first Philadelphia game, but didn't come back in last week's victory.
Kelly, meanwhile, was limited in practice Wednesday. He said he hopes to play through the pain with a brace. Before he was injured, the Colts allowed one sack in six games. Indy has given up six sacks in the three games he missed.
REJOINING THE YOUNGSTERS?
Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee practiced this week for the first time since leaving a game Nov. 5 against Tennessee with his second hamstring injury this season.
He could rejoin the linebacker rotation Sunday. If he does, the focus will be on how it works.
Vander Esch and Lee play the same position and 23-year-old Jaylon Smith, a former Notre Dame star, also played well this season. The two youngsters have embraced playing big roles while Lee, a 2014 All-Pro choice, was on the mend.
Eight Colts players will wear special cleats this weekend to promote various charities.
Luck will wear shoes bearing Indianapolis' renowned Riley Hospital for Children, which he has worked with since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2012.
Three players — Leonard, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Mathias Farley — are using their cleats to draw attention to the Edwin Jackson 53 Foundation. Jackson, a Colts linebacker, was killed in a traffic accident in February.