Published November 30, 2012
| Sports Network
It wasn't supposed to happen this quickly.
After suffering through a horrific two-win season without a gimpy Peyton Manning in 2011, the new-look Indianapolis Colts -- with fresh-faced No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck -- were supposed to make moderate climb into the "they'll be good in a couple years" category in 2012.
Instead, they've skipped right to the NFL's version of the lightning round.
The Colts won for the fifth time in six games last week and find themselves squarely in the midst of playoff talk entering Week 13 of the 2012 schedule, when they'll visit the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field.
Indianapolis is 7-4, has a game lead on all comers as it occupies the top wild card slot in the AFC, and, perhaps most impressively, shook off the despair of a 35-point loss at New England last week by holding off Buffalo, 20-13, at home. Luck and Co. still have not lost back-to-back games all season.
"We understand the position we're in, but again, nothing has been accomplished yet," Luck said.
It's not been a perfect portrait in all phases for the upstarts -- they've turned the ball over 21 times, including 16 on the road, for a minus-14 ratio overall -- but they've also won six of seven games that have been decided by seven or less points and their average margin of victory is lowest among the league's top 10 teams.
"We're the type of team, we're going to be in a lot of close games and fortunately we've found a lot of ways to win them," interim coach Bruce Arians said. "The big thing for us is to go on the road and protect the football and play good defense and bring those special teams with us on the road and see if we can play our best football on the road."
The Lions, playoff participants for the first time this century after going 10-6 last season, are the other side of the 2012 coin.
All seven of Detroit's losses have been by 10 points or less, and an overtime home defeat to Houston on Thanksgiving pushed them within a game of their first five-game losing skid since 2010.
"It's kind of the same story," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "It's just frustrating. Back-to-back weeks, we had a chance to beat a really good team, but that's not good enough because this is a really good team. We're just not playing like it right now."
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is $30,000 lighter in the wallet entering the game after he was fined for unnecessary roughness after kicking Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin. He wasn't suspended because commissioner Roger Goodell couldn't clearly determine intent.
Predictably, Suh claims the blow was an accident.
"It's a crazy play, it's one that unfortunately happened," he said. "I was being dragged to the ground and my foot inadvertently hit the man. But it's over with and I am moving forward and getting ready to play the Colts."
Among the recurring bright lights for the Lions is wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who'll be a task for the Colts as he enters the game on an NFL-record pace for yardage. Johnson leads the league with 1,257 through 11 games and needs to average 118.2 per week for the rest of the season to equal Jerry Rice's 1995 record.
He's averaged 114.2 per game through last week.
"I'm definitely thinking about it, but I just have to keep on working, keep it in the back of my mind, but still focus on the task at hand," Johnson said.
No. 2 wideout Titus Young was benched by Lions coach Jim Schwartz for "unacceptable behavior" and his status is uncertain for this week. In his absence, quarterback Matthew Stafford clicked with rookie Ryan Broyles to the tune of 126 yards against the Texans.
For the Colts, rookie T.Y. Hilton was the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week and averages 12.3 yards per punt runback, but he's a secondary receiving option to veteran Reggie Wayne, who's raced back to relevance with league- bests in targets (144) and catches (84) through 11 games. His yardage (1,105) trails only Johnson.
Wayne caught seven passes for 105 yards when the teams last played in 2008, and he's only six behind Andre Reed for 10th on the league's all-time receptions list.
The Colts lead the all-time series, 20-18-2, and have won five of the last seven games. Neither Arians nor Schwartz have ever faced this week's opponent.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It's one thing to give up 205 rushing yards to a Houston Texans team with Arian Foster and another to allow 123 per week in a division that features standouts like Matt Forte in Chicago and Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, but the Lions should rebound some in that aspect against a comparatively star-free Colts ground game.
Indianapolis is 17th in the league with a pedestrian 108.3 yards per game, which should allow Detroit to stay in its base 4-3 package and perhaps add more defensive backs to contend with Luck.
The upstart Colts were primed for a prolonged tailspin after having their lunch money snatched by the Patriots, but their instant bounce-back last week spoke perhaps unexpected volumes about their mettle.
All of which means, as wild card leaders, they're now expected to go into a lesser foe's building and keep the momentum going with an important victory. A test for Luck, but it says here he'll pass in a shootout.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 30, Lions 24