INDIANAPOLIS -- After weeks of drifting down that lonely highway known as irrelevancy, Indianapolis took the off-ramp to prominence Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium, dominating Dallas in a way no opponent has in 15 years. And while the Colts do not control their future, as it relates to guaranteeing themselves a playoff spot, there is no grousing from within. Life is about living in the moment, not fretting about the future.
Still, few saw this coming -- the seven wins in eight games or the 23-0 spanking of the Cowboys, who had won five in a row and were seeking to wrap up the NFC East title with a victory. The Colts were 1-5 in October and heading nowhere fast. The final 10 games were supposed to be about laying a foundation for the 2019 season, or so many of us thought. But this group is too young and too prideful for that. The players took to heart the words of their first-year head coach to view each week as its own season. Trust the process, Frank Reich told them. And now, with two weeks to go in the regular season, the Colts have positioned themselves for a legitimate shot at one of the AFC's six playoff berths.
"Even when we were 1-5, we never lost hope," said center Ryan Kelly, who returned to the lineup after missing the previous three games with a knee injury. "We knew we were so close to winning those games, so there was never a sour moment in the locker room. We hated those losses -- they really hurt -- but I think it rejuvenated us. We're a young team, so some people might be like, 'They don't have a lot of experience.' But I think it works well for us. We have a lot of young guys who play hard as hell and never quit."
Instead, it was the Cowboys who tapped out, absorbing their first shutout since 2003. Dallas prides itself on being physical and wearing teams down as the game progresses, but it was the Colts who kept coming forward. They stayed in the Cowboys' face from start to finish, going so far as to bully the league's third-ranked run defense at times. Dallas had not allowed 100 yards rushing in its previous five games and ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed per carry, but the Colts, who had been held to 91 yards rushing in their previous two games combined, took that as a challenge and ran for 178 yards, a season-high against the Cowboys.
Marlon Mack, who finished with a career-high 139 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, sensed what was to come as early as the first series.
"When I saw those holes, I was like, Oh, yeah, it might be a good day," he said. "Holes like that don't come often. When the guys are blocking like that in front of you -- oh yeah, these big guys are moving them, so step your game up."
The Colts have made warming up to them difficult this year. First there was the poor start, but even when they rallied to win five in a row, they did so unconventionally, relying on a tight end-centric passing game for several weeks. At that point, you wondered if they could be for real, only to watch them get shut out by the woeful Jaguars, 6-0. So what do we make of them now, after -- in consecutive weeks -- they ended the Texans' nine-game win streak and handed the Cowboys their first shutout in a decade and a half?
Truthfully, I don't know. They don't wow you with the spectacular, save for the deep speed of T.Y. Hilton. They're not leading the league in any major categories. Their players' names don't roll off the tongue when discussing MVPs or Players of the Year. But know this: You would be foolish to look past these Colts because they have a physical offensive line, a quarterback who is living up to the status of being a No. 1 overall pick, and a defense that knows only one speed (open throttle) and one way to play (all out).
"It's amazing," rookie linebacker Darius Leonard said of Indy's rise to prominence. "It shows what type of character this team has. We're pretty young, and early, we were just making dumb mistakes. Now that we're not making those mistakes, we're competing with anybody and balling and just trying to be 1-0 each week. I love being the underdog. I love working from behind. It fits my makeup, coming from behind. Everybody overlooked this team, but we have great guys, great ballplayers and we're going to keep competing."
Sunday was improbable on so many levels, both sides. Andrew Luck completed just 16 passes and threw for only 192 yards with no touchdowns, yet Indy still prevailed. Dallas controlled the ball on its opening three drives with possessions that lasted 10, 15 and 14 plays, yet the Cowboys failed to produce points on any of them. They had a field-goal attempt blocked on their first possession, were stopped on fourth down from the Indy 3 on their second series and punted on their third possession after a sack took them out of field-goal range.
"With this defense all year, we just tell each other: bend but don't break," cornerback Kenny Moore said. "If something happens, just try to make the next snap better. They're an NFL offense, they're a great offense, so they're going to make their plays. At the end, we have to make more plays than them."
The game highlighted a recurring problem for Dallas' offense, namely its inability to finish drives in the red zone. Sunday the Cowboys were 0-for-2 -- and over the last three games, they have scored just two touchdowns on 11 trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line. For a team with a back as good as Ezekiel Elliott and a line that prides itself on being one of the league's best, the inefficiency is keeping the 'Boys from reaching their full potential.
The Colts' focal point was stopping Elliott, who entered the game leading the league in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. But with the Cowboys falling behind 7-0 in the first quarter, 10-0 at the half and 17-0 minutes into the third quarter, Dallas went away from the run game. Elliott had just five carries for 23 yards in the second half after gaining 64 on 13 rushes in the opening half.
Rendered one-dimensional, the Cowboys were almost helpless. The magic that had been present since wideout Amari Cooper arrived via trade in November was nowhere to be found on Sunday. Cooper, who was leading the league in receiving yards since joining the Cowboys, finished with four catches on seven targets for 32 yards.
"Stop the run, that was the No. 1 thing -- stop the run and make the quarterback beat us with his arm," said Leonard, adding that that's the strategy for every opponent, not just Dak Prescott, who was 24 of 39 for 206 yards with an interception. "We did that today, and our defensive line got after the quarterback when we did stop the run."
The Colts (8-6) sacked Prescott three times and hit him at least five other times. Over the last three games, they have 11 sacks, all of which would appear to bode well should they reach the postseason. But will they? Our research team says that of the 97 teams to start 1-5 since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, only the 2015 Chiefs advanced to the playoffs.
"It's been a climb," left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. "Every game kind of feels like a 'must-win' game. That's good. It adds that little bit of pressure, which makes our practices extremely tense, even this late in the season. Our scout teams are out there busting their tails, giving us good looks. The whole team realizes how dire it is when you're 1-5 to get those wins, and we've been doing everything we can to get them. But our focus is on finishing 1-0 each week and trusting the process. That's the mindset."