INDIANAPOLIS — The Dallas Cowboys are looking to clinch the NFC East Division title with a win. The Indianapolis Colts are just trying to sustain hopes for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot.
What gives when the Cowboys (8-5) visit the Colts (7-6) on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium?
The Cowboys are riding a five-game win streak largely behind the offensive production of running back Ezekiel Elliott and a defense that has allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL. Elliott leads the NFL with 1,262 rushing yards and has also caught 65 passes for 502 yards with nine TDs combined.
The Colts just snapped Houston’s nine-game streak with a 24-21 road win last Sunday and have won six of seven. So this matchup is between two of the hottest teams in the league.
As the Cowboys showed in a 13-10 home win over New Orleans, they can stop even the best offenses. That means the Colts’ chances first hinge on how well the offensive line can protect quarterback Andrew Luck. He’s taken just 16 sacks, second-fewest in the league. What's encouraging is center Ryan Kelly is expected to return to the lineup after missing three games with a knee injury.
But Luck's job might be more difficult if Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is unable to play due to an ankle injury. Hilton missed practice all week and will be a game-time decision.
Expect the Colts to throw an array of short, quick-hit passes to try to move the chains and free up running lanes for running back Marlon Mack. Luck is having a career year, but will be put to the test to make the right decisions and probably with little time to do it.
The Cowboys will look to wear down the Colts’ eighth-ranked run defense with Elliott, which if effective will also free up quarterback Dak Prescott to find wide receiver Amari Cooper, who has 40 receptions for 642 yards and six TDs since being acquired from Oakland in October. The Colts must keep Cooper in front of them and are undoubtedly mindful of his tendency to get open on crossing routes and short-range routes that utilize his speed and agility to make quick cuts.
The reality is the Cowboys are probably going to win the NFC East regardless of this outcome because they have a two-game cushion. And the Colts probably don’t have a realistic playoff shot if they lose this game. So the home team is more desperate, for those who put much stock in that.
What seems more relevant is the Colts’ inside knowledge on the Cowboys. Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was Cowboys linebackers coach from 2011 to 2017, which means he knows the Cowboys well. So, too, does Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich, who was the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons and had to game plan for the Cowboys defense twice each season.
The hunch is that those Colts coaches will have their team prepared for the Cowboys just enough. The Colts are favored by three points, and that spread sounds about right.
PREDICTION: Colts 23, Cowboys 20.