Colts begin renewed playoff push following late bye week

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich kept stressing the same points.

He urged players to stay patient, remain focused on the small tasks, and insisted the playoff picture would sort itself out. After last weekend’s bye, it has.

The Colts returned to their team complex Monday in a very different position than they left it — with the inside track to a wild-card spot.

“We’re not really focused on where we stand amongst others,” cornerback Kenny Moore II said. “However we fall into this dance we just want to get in and the way we get in is by winning each week. So we’ve got to put our keys together and play our ball.”

Indy needed a little outside help.

Losses by Cincinnati and Buffalo shook up the AFC playoff race, allowing Indianapolis to jump from ninth to sixth in the seven-team postseason field. The Colts now hold the top spot among five teams tied at 7-6 and are one game behind the Los Angeles Chargers for the No. 5 seed and the top wild-card slot.

Now comes the real playoff push.

Indy returns to action Saturday night against an old nemesis, the New England Patriots, in a potential playoff preview. At 9-4, the Patriots lead the AFC East by two games over Buffalo and currently hold the conference’s top seed. Lately, it’s been a lopsided series.

While the two teams have only played once since Reich took the Colts job after Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels backed out of his agreement following a Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia, New England has won eight straight since Indy last won in 2009.

Even some of the younger players are aware of what’s happened in previous matchups.

“Being part of the organization, I feel like it’s good to know the history and know how the fans are feeling, how the organization is feeling,” third-year linebacker Bobby Okereke said. “But it’s just another game, another opportunity to go 1-0, and we have a lot of juice coming off the bye.”

The road to the postseason won’t get any easier after Saturday, either.

Indy visits Arizona, the NFC West leader, on Christmas night. Then the Colts host the Las Vegas Raiders before closing out the season at struggling Jacksonville.

Win all four and they’re in — despite starting 1-5.

The Colts have been here before. In Reich’s first season, they rallied from a 1-5 start to make the 2018 postseason field. Reich has convinced them they can do it again, this time with a team that is rested, ready and relatively healthy for the final stretch.

The extra days off allowed Darius Leonard’s troublesome left ankle and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner’s hyperextended left knee extra time to heal.

Indy also is expecting center Ryan Kelly to return to practice Tuesday after he missed the Houston game because of a positive COVID-19 test. Reich said Kelly should be ready for Saturday night’s crucial contest, too.

“Obviously, very excited to be in prime time at home, in Lucas Oil Stadium,” Reich said. “I think it’s going to be an electric atmosphere Saturday night up against obviously a very good opponent, a very good AFC opponent. So, we’re looking forward to that challenge and looking forward to our fans providing an electric atmosphere.”

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