The Colts (6-7) limp into the Big Easy losers of five of their six most recent games. They have fallen from serious contenders to win the AFC South to a team that needs help to grab a wild-card berth. Last week, Indianapolis fell 38-35 to Tampa Bay on the road. The Colts were outgained 542-309 by the Buccaneers but led by 14 points in the third quarter thanks to four takeaways. Jameis Winston threw three interceptions but also finished the game with 456 passing yards and four touchdowns.
The Saints (10-3) have already clinched the NFC South title but ceded control of the overall top seed to San Francisco in a thrilling 48-46 loss in the Superdome. The fourth quarter alone featured 26 points as New Orleans took a one-point lead with less than one minute left on Drew Brees' fifth touchdown pass of the day, only to see the 49ers answer by marching the ball down the field to set up Robbie Gould's game-winning, 30-yard field goal as time expired.
Indianapolis at New Orleans
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 16 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Colts be able to run against the depleted Saints' defensive line?
New Orleans has recently lost two key components of its defensive line. Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport are gone for the rest of the season due to injury. Those losses hurt a defense that currently ranks fourth in the NFL against the run (94.2 ypg) and in rushing first downs (60) allowed.
Rankins missed the first three of the games this season due to his recovery from a torn Achilles he suffered in last year's playoffs. Last week, he was carted off after suffering what was later called a significant ankle injury. He was placed on injured reserve and will reportedly undergo surgery at some point. He finishes with 10 total tackles, two sacks, and five quarterback hits in 10 games.
Davenport had started every game this season before suffering a foot injury last week. He too was placed on IR and will undergo foot surgery for the second time in as many seasons. He had recorded 31 total tackles, six sacks, 16 QB hits, and three forced fumbles prior to the injury.
Indianapolis has made a renewed commitment to running the ball this season and it's paid off to some degree. The Colts are sixth in the league at 133.3 rushing yards per game and have picked up 103 first downs on the ground. The only team with more is the run-heavy Ravens led by MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson and former Saint Mark Ingram.
But Indianapolis has only averaged 4.4 yards per carry, which is good for 14th in the league, and 11 rushing touchdowns (tied for 16th). So while the volume has certainly been there (395 fifth-most carries) the production hasn't necessarily followed.
Marlon Mack leads the team with 900 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. He's been a chain-mover (55 first downs) and has yet to fumble, but he's also missed two games and parts of others because of a broken hand and an ankle injury. He will try to take advantage of the Saints' makeshift defensive line on Monday night.
2. Jacoby Brissett vs. Drew Brees
Following Andrew Luck's unexpected retirement in the preseason, Indianapolis turned to Brissett, who has been steady but not spectacular. He's averaging 208 passing yards per game and has just three 300-yard games, but he's done a good job with his decision-making with 18 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. He's also put up 167 yards and three touchdowns on the ground with three lost fumbles.
Part of the reason Brissett has not put up huge numbers through the air is because of injuries to his receiving corps. Top target T.Y. Hilton (calf) and rookie Parris Campbell (broken foot, on IR) have both played in just seven games and Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron also is done for the season after undergoing surgery on both of his ankles. Brissett doesn't have his full arsenal of weapons and it's starting to show in his numbers. Over the last six games, he's averaging 185 passing yards per game with a total of four touchdowns and three interceptions. Not surprisingly, the Colts are 2-4 during that stretch.
On the other side is Brees, who is coming off of his best game of the season in the close loss to San Francisco. Brees torched the NFL's No. 2-ranked defense for 349 yards and five touchdowns. He wasn't sacked by the 49ers' fearsome pass rush despite the Saints' offensive line dealing with various ailments. Now he faces an Indianapolis defense that ranks 22nd in the league against the pass (San Francisco is still No. 1) and just got lit up by Jameis Winston even though he threw three picks.
3. Can the Saints' defense protect a lead during the fourth quarter?
New Orleans' defense has buckled under pressure in the final 15 minutes of several games. Back in Week 1, Houston scored a go-ahead touchdown in a drive consisting of two plays and lasting 13 seconds. In Chicago in Week 7, the defense allowed the Bears to score two touchdowns in the last three minutes of the game. The Panthers drove for the tying touchdown with less than 10 minutes to go in Week 12. On Thanksgiving night in Atlanta, the Saints surrendered two touchdowns in a minute and a half late in the fourth quarter. However, New Orleans was still able to win all of these games, and only two of them (Texans and Panthers) required any sort of game-winning heroics from Brees and the offense.
But last week at home against San Francisco, the Saints finally paid the price for their fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns. Twice in the final frame, New Orleans scored to take a slim lead only to see the 49ers answer. And what's even more painful for Saints' fans is that their team went ahead 46-45 with 53 seconds remaining only to watch San Francisco go 63 yards in seven plays to set up Robbie Gould's game-winning, 30-yard field goal as the clock ran out.
Fortunately, Indianapolis' recent woes have included the fourth quarter. Over the last three games, the Colts have been outscored 31-0 in the final 15 minutes. That includes letting Tampa Bay blank them 10-0 to come from behind and win last week. So perhaps Indianapolis' sputtering offense is just what New Orleans' defense needs to find their resolve late in games, something that will certainly be tested come playoff time.
The Colts' three-game losing streak has them in danger of completely falling out of playoff contention. Indianapolis has struggled on offense and not been able to make the plays necessary to win close games late. With the losses and injuries mounting, one has to question how much resolve the Colts still possess to keep fighting for a playoff spot.
The Saints wasted an outstanding performance by their offense last week at home in their battle with San Francisco for the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC. New Orleans' defense could not have played much worse than it did against the 49ers and now must move forward without two of its best defensive linemen. If the Saints wish to secure the first-round bye in the playoffs that comes with being one of the top two seeds, they cannot afford a second consecutive loss at home.
Prediction: Saints 30, Colts 20
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.