INDIANAPOLIS – Six Indianapolis Colts earned All-Pro honors Friday from The Associated Press.
Four of them – defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard and special teams ace George Odom – were named to the first team. That’s the most for the franchise since 2005.
The six overall selections – including center Ryan Kelly and long snapper Luke Rhodes, who were named to the second team – also are the most since 2005.
It’s a testament to the work of general manager Chris Ballard, head coach Frank Reich and their staffs. And it’s evidence of just how talented the roster has become.
But it won’t change the team’s underdog status for Saturday’s AFC wild card game.
The Buffalo Bills (13-3) are the hottest team in the NFL and are seven-point favorites to eliminate the Colts (11-5) from postseason play.
“Finishing 11-5 is a great accomplishment,” Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. “It’s not a good year. That’s a great year. So hats off to (the players and coaches) dealing with adversity and unique circumstances through the year. To finish the way we did, I feel really proud of those guys. We earned it. We’re in the playoffs.
“This thing is a long season. It’s a grueling season, and when you get here, you got here because you earned it. We have a team that earned the right to be in this discussion.”
Now they hope for an extended stay.
It won’t be easy.
The Bills have won six straight games and nine of their last 10. They’ve averaged 47.3 points in the last three and won by an average of nearly 30 points. Reich believes quarterback Josh Allen should be in the MVP conversation, and wide receiver Stefon Diggs has been among the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league.
There is some question whether Diggs (oblique) or fellow receiver Cole Beasley (knee) will play. Both were limited in Thursday’s final practice and are listed as questionable.
But this is the NFL’s second-ranked scoring offense, and the Colts recognize the challenge.
Indianapolis’ eighth-ranked defense coughed up a 17-point lead in the second half against Pittsburgh on Dec. 27 and surrendered most of a 20-point lead last week against Jacksonville before rallying.
But at least one of its leaders is using a perceived lack of respect for its season-long accomplishments as motivation this week.
“We’ve been playing good,” Leonard said. “I think we’ll continue to play good. And just let everybody who doubts us sit down, grab a beer and just watch our defense run around and make plays.”
The Colts will need to make their fair share of plays on offense as well.
Buffalo has been susceptible to the run, allowing an average of 4.6 yards per carry to rank 26th in the league. But that’s often mitigated by the high-scoring offense and a propensity for force turnovers. The Bills’ 26 takeaways rank third in the NFL.
That explains why the first area Reich mentioned as a focus this week was turnovers. Indianapolis has done a good job of protecting the ball for the most part. Its 15 turnovers are the third-fewest in the league, but nine of them came in the team’s five losses.
The other area of focus is the red zone. The Colts have scored a touchdown on 58.3% of their trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. That ranks in the bottom half – 17th – of the league.
And the numbers on defense aren’t much better. Opponents reach the end zone on 61.5% of their red-zone trips, the 15th most successful defensive rate in the league.
Buffalo has scored a touchdown 61.8% of the time in the red zone, but it’s surrendered the end zone at a 65.5% clip.
In what’s expected to be a tight playoff battle, such details could make all the difference.
“We can’t go out there and say we’re just going to hand it off and be very be careful and we’ll win, because we are playing too good of a team,” Colts quarterback Philip Rivers said. “You can’t not play free and use the playmakers we have. But it’s going to come down to fundamentals, technique and situational football and taking care of the football.
“In the (playoff) games where the teams that I’ve been on where I and we have done that, then it’s usually worked out pretty good. When we haven’t, you end up falling short.”