The Indianapolis Colts are once again in a prime-time spot following their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night. Despite this matchup being one that the NFL and NBC would’ve likely liked to flexed out for a better game, there was no way Jerry Jones was going to allow his Dallas Cowboys to get removed from the spotlight.
These two teams rarely face each other. They’ve had five meetings since 2000 and the last time we saw both of these franchises on the same field was in 2018. The Colts and Cowboys are heading in different directions as we head to the final stretch of the season.
Indianapolis is now in evaluation mode as they look to put together their offseason plan for 2023. Dallas is wanting to stack wins so they can potentially win the NFC East and eventually make a postseason run.
Will Indy keep putting up a fight in the games or do they appear that they are placing their vacation plans in January? Sunday will give us an insight into the current mindset of the team.
Here are five things to watch when they hit the field:
Colts offensive line vs Cowboys defensive front
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The Cowboys are heavily favored heading into this game and that is likely because Vegas knows that their defensive front is going to be getting after Matt Ryan often. This is a strength vs weakness matchup that Dallas will be looking to exploit on Sunday night. The Cowboys have the most sacks in the NFL with 45.
Micah Parsons leads the way for their defense with 12 sacks. That is the second-most in the league behind Matthew Judon with 13. He got three of those against the Colts just a few weeks ago. It’s not all just Parsons. Their defensive front also features DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and Dante Flower Jr., each having at least five sacks this year.
Plus, they have their rookie, Sam Williams in the rotation who has gotten three sacks of his own. Indianapolis has given up the most sacks this season with 43. Bernhard Raimann has seen a litter of good pass rushers since he took over the left tackle spot and the rookie has a daunting night ahead of him.
He’s steadily improved but he showed this past Monday night that he still struggles with edge rushers that have speed.
As well as dealing with a bull rush.
If the Colts want to be able to somehow pull off an upset in front of a national audience then they will need their first-year left tackle to play as close to a perfect game as he can.
The record for the most sacks in a game is 14. Will the Cowboys come close to it or break it?
Bottling up Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott
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The Cowboys’ offense has a number of skill position players that can help take over the game but their strength is still the backfield tandem of Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott. As a team, they average 139.2 rushing yards per game, which is the seventh most in the NFL. Despite Jerry Jones’ affinity for Zeke, it is Pollard who has been the best running back in Dallas this season.
He leads the team with an average of 69.2 rushing yards per game. Pollard also has the most 20+ rushing plays with six, which is the most for Dallas. He has six rushing touchdowns as well. But he’s just not a threat on the ground. Pollard is also a part of the passing attack.
He has 244 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Elliott isn’t chopped liver so the defense also has to respect him anytime he’s on the field as well. He’s averaging 64.1 rushing yards per game and leads the Cowboys with seven rushing touchdowns.
One of the keys to Gus Bradley’s unit having a successful night is keeping Pollard and Zeke in check while putting Dallas in third-and-long situations as often as they can. The Indy front seven needs a bounce-back performance after Monday night.
Can Jonathan Taylor take over?
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This has been far from the ideal season for Jonathan Taylor. Between the struggles of his offensive line, his injury, and fumble issues, the star back has dealt with a rocky road in 2022. If there was one thing that can help negate the Cowboys’ pass rush and keep their offense on the sideline is riding on the back of Taylor.
Dallas is giving up 131.1 rushing YPG, which is the ninth most in the NFL. The offense has been leaning on Taylor more since he’s returned from his ankle injury. He has three straight games with at least 20 rushing attempts and is averaging 4.95 YPC.
One of the many issues with the Colts’ offense is that they put themselves in third-and-long situations far too often. They need Taylor to pick up those four to six-yard gains as much as he can on Sunday night. If Dallas is able to bottle him up and force Matt Ryan to throw then it will get ugly fast.
The offensive line and Taylor taking over this matchup from the opening quarter is another key to Indianapolis marching into Jerry World and leaving with a victory.
Keeping the Cowboys out of the end zone
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The Cowboys’ offense has plenty of ways that they can attack a defense with their skill position players. They are bound to be able to move the ball against the Colts’ defense so it is going to be vital for Gus Bradley’s unit to tighten up when Dallas gets into the red zone.
The Cowboys have one of the best red zone offenses this season. They score a touchdown on 69.7% when they get inside the 20-yard line. That is the fourth-best in the NFL. They’ve been on fire over their last three games, scoring a touchdown on 81.82% of their red zone attempts. They’ve finished with at least 28 points in their last four games.
The Colts’ defense has played pretty well this season but they have struggled when teams get inside the 20-yard line. They are allowing a touchdown on 59.38% of the opposing team’s red zone attempts. That is the 11th-highest mark across the league.
The explosive plays will come from Dallas but if Indianapolis can keep them out of the endzone then they might have a chance to get the win in the fourth quarter.
Can the passing attack step up?
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I think we all know the answer to that question. Likely not. Especially based on what Matt Ryan and the passing attack have shown for most of the season. In an ideal situation, what I laid out in the prior things to watch for would happen so the Colts wouldn’t need to take the ball to the air, but that’s just not how the NFL works.
The Cowboys could easily put up a two-score lead to open the game leading to Indianapolis having to play catch up throughout the night. Their defense will be looking to eliminate Jonathan Taylor from the matchup and make the Colts one-dimensional. Teams understand that is how you keep this struggling offense at bay.
After facing a team that is in the bottom five in passing yards allowed, they now will be going against a Cowboys defense that is giving up 177.7 passing YPG. That is the best in the NFL.
Matt Ryan will have to be careful when he looks to test Trevon Diggs. The star corner leads Dallas with three interceptions and 13 pass deflections. One bad throw can lead to a pick-six for their defense.
Will one of the receivers or tight ends help out Taylor move the chains? It needs to be a group effort but the Colts haven’t had a player go over 100 receiving yards since Michael Pittman Jr. did it in the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It can’t be all on JT to give their team a chance to win the game.
This contest can flip into a shootout at any point but it won’t be a barnburner if the woes of the passing attack once again show up for Indy. If it does, then don’t be surprised if they get blown out in front of a national audience.