Colts are a team nobody wants to face in playoffs after blanking Cowboys

INDIANAPOLIS – Need further proof the Indianapolis Colts are a team nobody would want to face if they make the playoffs?

Beat a Houston team on a nine-game winning streak? Check.

Beat a Dallas team on a five-game winning streak the following week? Did that, too.

And what made ending the winning streaks of the Texans and Cowboys even more impressive? The Colts used different blueprints for success.

The Colts used Andrew Luck’s arm in one game and then switched it up with an impressive running game and their best defensive performance of the season against the Cowboys.

That’s a recipe for a team that’s capable of winning in any facet -- and why the Colts have won seven of their past eight games and posted their first shutout in more than four years by blanking the surging Cowboys 23-0 on Sunday.

“That was a complete football game,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “We talked all week long, talked about 1-0, getting better every week. We felt like this had to be our best of the year.”

The Colts (8-6) have also continually talked about not worrying about what other teams in the playoff hunt are doing because it does them no good if they take care of their own business.

Winning the AFC South is major obstacle for them because they trail the Texans by two games with two games left in the season. But making the playoffs as a wild-card team is right there in Indianapolis’ sight, depending on what teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore do the rest of the season. The Colts haven't been to the playoffs since 2014.

“We’re playing great football,” receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “Right now you’re either the train or you’re on the tracks. Right now we’re rolling, so you better get on the train.”

The Cowboys strolled into Indianapolis winners of five in a row with an offense led by running back Ezekiel Elliott and a defense ranked fourth in the NFL.

None of that mattered to the Colts. They rolled up their sleeves, went toe-to-toe with Dallas and beat them by punching them first on defense and then beating them at the line of scrimmage on offense.

That's how it was all game.

Over and over again.

The Cowboys reached Colts' territory seven times only to be left with a goose egg every time. If the Colts were looked at as an underrated unit under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who spent the previous seven seasons in Dallas, that thought should vanish after blanking the Cowboys.

The Colts blocked a field goal, stuffed the Cowboys on fourth down from their own 3-yard line, had a sack on third down that knocked Dallas out of field goal range late in the first half and an interception late in the fourth quarter to secure the shutout.

That was only part of the success the Colts had while holding Dallas to 292 total yards, including limiting Elliott to just 87 yards, which was about 18 yards below his season average of 105.1 yards a game.

“Going out and facing adversity, we pride ourselves on just putting our feet in the ground and going forward,” Colts defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis said. “Penetrate and just being a get-off defense and making stops we need to make.”

Elliott was the headliner at running back as the NFL's leading rusher, but he wasn't the best player at his position Sunday. Colts running back Marlon Mack was that player.

Mack rushed for a career-high 139 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns. He's the first Colts running back to rush for at least 100 yards and have two rushing touchdowns twice in a season since Edgerrin James did it in 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Mack accomplished that feat against a Dallas defense that was ranked third in the league.

“We’ve really wanted to get the run game going,” Reich said. “This was a difficult game to do that because they led the league in yards per attempt rushing. Guys up front played great football. Physical dominant football. Marlon ran it great.”

For so many years, it was all about Luck’s ability to carry the Colts. Winning a game with Luck throwing for fewer than 200 yards and no touchdowns routinely meant a loss for the Colts in the past. But general manager Chris Ballard stood behind the podium at the team’s complex in February 2017 and praised Luck’s talents while also sternly saying it’s not about just one player in his eyes. It’s about the team to Ballard. Sunday was a prime example of that because Luck was just 16-of-27 for 192 yards and no touchdowns.

“Finally it wasn’t like receivers' day,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “It was great to be able to run the ball because you need to run the ball at this time of year. You need to keep playmakers fresh on the outside and let your running back do what he do. I was happy Marlon was able to get his stride. Happy to have him back. (Center) Ryan Kelly, man, happy to have him back because we go for 100 yards when Ryan is in there.”

Run. Pass. Defend.

It doesn't matter with the Colts. They're capable of winning in any of those ways, and that's just how general manager Chris Ballard envisioned it as he put his team together.