INDIANAPOLIS — Nobody allowed fewer points in the first weekend of the NFL playoffs than the Indianapolis Colts in a 21-7 AFC Wild Card victory at Houston on Saturday.
As the Colts prepare to face the Kansas City Chiefs’ highest-scoring offense in the league in a Saturday AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium, it’s easy to overlook a vastly improved Colts defense that will be put to the supreme test.
As Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich conceded on a Sunday conference call, his 11th-ranked defense doesn’t always get the credit deserved for the team winning 10 of 11 games including its first playoff victory since 2014.
The Colts (11-6) were 10th in fewest points allowed at 21.5 per game. But that doesn’t do the unit justice. Since Week 7, nobody in the NFL allowed fewer points than the Colts’ 16.4 per game. The defense didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all season and forced a turnover in 15 of 16 games.
But the Chiefs (12-4) led the league in so many offensive categories, including 35.3 points and 425.6 yards per game.
As Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus admitted on Monday, he “Got Up early, went to bed late.” He wasn’t the only one. Although Reich gave players Sunday and Monday off, quarterback Andrew Luck was at the Colts complex watching hours of game film.
Eberflus has been such a quality addition to the coaching staff this season, he interviewed for the Cleveland Browns head coaching vacancy on Sunday. But his mind is still focused on the challenge ahead.
“There’s no doubt the defense is a huge part of the reason that we are where we’re at,” Reich said. “The reason I think is because number one we have good players. You can have a great scheme, but if you don’t have good players it doesn’t matter. So number one just give credit to the fact that we have talented players. Chris (Ballard) has done a good job of putting the players on our defense.
“Maybe you hear people say, ‘Well, we don’t have a bunch of Pro Bowl defensive players (or) ‘big name players.’’ I don’t know about all that, all I know is we have good players and then we do have a good scheme. Matt (Eberflus) has done a phenomenal job and the defensive staff. It just takes time. It takes time to develop the culture and the mentality and the execution that you want for things to grow to where you play winning football. I think that is more than anything what it was.”
Truth is, most of the money was spent on offense. The Colts spent more than $88.8 million on 31 offensive players this season compared to $39.5 million paid to 30 defensive players, according to spotrac.com.
But Reich is correct in his assessment that his defense, built mostly with young and inexpensive players, has talent. Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, a second-round selection who led the NFL in total tackles by a 19-stop margin with 163, is the most obvious leader. And Leonard, who had a weekend-high 13 total tackles in his playoff debut, cost just $1.3 million in base salary and signing bonus. Although snubbed as a Pro Bowl starter, "The Maniac" earned first-team, All-Pro honors along with fellow Colts rookie offensive guard Quenton Nelson.
Leonard will now focus on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a second-year pro who in his first season as a starter threw a league-best 50 TD passes. That’s 11 more scores than the next passer, who happened to be Luck. Expect Mahomes to be named NFL MVP, quite an accomplishment for a 23-year-old talent that few knew existed before this season.
“The first thing that jumps out is his arm talent,” Eberflus said of Mahomes.
When Reich and Eberflus size up the Chiefs, they don’t just see Mahomes. He has so many Pro Bowl talents to utilize, most notably tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill. It’s not often that a tight end leads a team in pass receiving, but Kelce did with 103 catches for 1,336 yards and 10 TDs, all career highs for the sixth-year pro who has made four Pro Bowls.
The speedy Hill has the rare distinction of being one of the few NFL players who is faster than Colts four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The combine 40-yard dash times had Hill clocked at 4.29 seconds compared to Hilton’s 4.34. Hill, who is also arguably the NFL’s best kick returner, has made the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons. He caught 87 passes for a team-best 1,479 yards and 12 TDs in 2018. He also had a 91-yard TD punt return.
“I just think that they do a great job of being very multiple and very diverse,” Reich said. “They keep offenses guessing. I think (head) coach (Andy) Reid, that’s been is M.O. for a long time. He’s very good at being creative and using the weapons that he has. They do have great weapons and he knows how to use them and spread the ball around. Then having a quarterback like that who is a playmaker, he’s had a tremendous year.”
The Chiefs were 7-1 at Arrowhead Stadium, the lone loss coming to the Los Angeles Chargers, who like the sixth-seeded Colts advanced with a road playoff win this past weekend. The fifth-seeded Chargers visit second-seeded New England on Sunday.
“Obviously Kansas City – they are the number one seed team for a reason,” Reich said. “Obviously Andy Reid is a guy who (is) one of the best in the business. I know him a little bit and have the most respect you can have for a guy. He is a great coach. They are very well-coached. This will be a great challenge. This is a great environment to go into this stadium. I have played a few big games in this stadium. It’s a pretty fun environment and will be a good test for our players.”
What impressed Reich perhaps the most about beating the AFC South Division Texans was how the Colts played together as a team. The offense scored touchdowns on its first two possessions and had 21 by halftime. The defense didn’t allow a score until the fourth quarter. It’s the first time since 2011 that a playoff team was shut out in the first half.
“We had multiple chances to really put the thing away, didn’t do it,” Reich said of his offense failing to score in the second half at Houston. “The defense kept us in the game. A great team win.”