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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 12: Indianapolis Colts

Pagano Getty Images

The Colts were the surprise team of 2012, vaulting from 2-14 the previous season to 11-5 in the playoffs based on a combination of a new quarterback and some old-fashioned emotion.

Now that the strong feelings have subsided, and a new baseline of expectations has been set, it’s reasonable to wonder whether they’ll be able to continue to build, or will suffer the kind of regression to the mean so many teams that make big leaps find.

Quarterback Andrew Luck is a special player, and as long as he’s well, there’s a floor on how bad the Colts are going to get. But they overachieved by such a remarkable degree last season, that it seems almost impossible to replicate.

They strengthened the middle third of their roster with a bunch of free agent signings, but the offseason didn’t bring in many difference-makers.

They have many young parts other than Luck which will provide the base for years to come, but may not have done enough to help him yet.

Strengths.

It starts at the top, as Luck was as good as advertised as a rookie.

While his overall stats might not shine like others, he was also asked to much more, and with much less. The Colts didn’t put Luck into a comfortable spot, with a leaky line and an offense that asked him to move the ball downfield rather than making the safe, short throws.

He still excelled, and looked his best in late-game situations, when young players can often fold. He has a legitimate star in Reggie Wayne to throw to, a young deep threat in T.Y. Hilton and a pair of good tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

Now’s he’s going to have to build on that, and even what could be considered a problem may work out in his favor. Losing coordinator Bruce Arians and replacing him with Pep Hamilton will be a change in style, but Hamilton was Luck’s OC in college at Stanford, and will bring a system well-suited to his strengths and weaknesses.

Weaknesses.

One of Luck’s biggest problems last year was hardly his fault.

He took 41 sacks behind a makeshift offensive line that seemed like the last problem that General Manager Ryan Grigson got around to addressing.

They’ve at least added some new names there this year, signing right tackle Gosder Cherilus for more money than anyone thought he’d get, and then bringing in former Patriots guard Donald Thomas.

That’s still just a 40 percent turnover for a line that was pretty bad last year, which may not be enough to fix it.

They’re also not overwhelmed with options in the pass rush. Letting Dwight Freeney walk was reasonable given his age and the direction of the franchise, but they kind of have Robert Mathis and your guess is as good as mine to provide sacks.

Signing former Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden early in free agency was a bit of a head-scratcher. He’s not a bad player, and may well be able to set the edge and help the run defense, but he’s hardly worth the investment and urgency they put into him.

As with many young and rebuilding teams, special teams was kind of a hash last year, but a season to put parts together might lend some stability there, particularly in the return game.

Changes.

The Colts spent, as the owner referred to it, “SERIOUS coin” this offseason, but they also bought a lot of bulk.

While some of the new additions could have an immediate impact (safety LaRon Landry, running Ahmad Bradshaw), many of the guys they brought in were more subtle tweaks to the roster.

Cornerback Greg Toler’s a solid addition to a secondary that needed help.

New quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is the right kind of voice to put in Luck’s ear at this stage in his career, a smart veteran who has made the transition from starter to backup.

But some of the moves just seem like they were made for the sake of making moves.

An upgrade at tackle was a necessity, but Cherilus got an awful lot of money ($34.5 million over five years), considering a market that went flat and some of the guys who are still available now.

They needed another outside weapon on offense, but Darrius Heyward-Bey has always provided more sizzle than steak. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois got a big contract for a guy who was always a backup.

The Colts needed to add depth to a young roster, and some of the guys they signed should provide that. But Grigson behaved like all that coin of Irsay’s was burning a hole in his pocket.

Camp Battles.

The sorting at defensive tackle will be interesting, as Jean-Francois and Fili Moala are likely battling for a starting job. But both are versatile enough to play end in Greg Manusky’s hybrid 3-4, and should have a role. The fact Jean-Francois has never been a full-time player makes Moala a necessity, even if he’s not starting.

They’re also looking at options at inside linebacker.

They brought in Kevin Sheppard in a trade with Buffalo, and he took a lot of offseason reps with the first defense while Pat Angerer was recovering from a foot surgery.

Angerer’s likely to win the job if he’s well, and should give them a solid pair along with Jerrell Freeman.

Prospects.

Though it sounds strange to say, the Colts are practically in the early stages of another coaching change.

While Chuck Pagano’s battle with cancer was the emotional lift for last year’s climb, much of that success happened when he was away from the team taking care of his health.

He set the tone in the offseason and established the program, and Arians did a masterful job of running things in his absence. Now it’s on Pagano to keep the progress going. Hamilton was an excellent hire, someone who was going to have his pick of NFL jobs at some point.

The Colts are still an at early stage in their growth as a franchise, and Pagano was respected around the league before last season.

He’s a good coach, but the job’s harder now. Going from good to great is much harder than going from terrible to good, and Pagano will have to adjust to that.

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Bills eliminated from playoff contention with loss at Oakland

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A promising season for the Bills has come to a disappointing end, as a loss in Oakland today has eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention.

The Raiders came out playing hard and surprised the Bills, winning 26-24.

Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr showed again that he’s a promising prospect, if not yet a great quarterback. He had his ups and his downs against a very good Bills Defense, but late in the fourth quarter, after the Bills inexplicably punted, Carr marched the Raiders down the field on a long drive that ended with a game-sealing touchdown pass to Jamize Olawale.

The win means the Raiders will not earn the first overall pick in the draft, but most Oakland fans are probably OK with that. The franchise quarterback of the future in Oakland isn’t Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, it’s Carr.

For the Bills, who fall to 8-7, tough questions about the quarterback position will have to be answered this offseason: If Kyle Orton and EJ Manuel aren’t the right men for the job, who is?

The Bills have a good roster but no franchise quarterback. The Raiders don’t have a good roster, but in Carr, they seem to have a quarterback they’ll be able to win with in the future.

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Raiola could be facing a suspension after Sunday stomp

Raiola Getty Images

When the Lions head to Lambeau Field for the NFC North championship game next week, they possibly won’t have veteran center Dominic Raiola.

Raiola is facing discipline in the wake of his stomp on the leg of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson.  That discipline could include a suspension.

“I want to emphasize that our number one goal and priority is protecting our players from unnecessary risk,” NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent told PFT on Sunday afternoon.  “Actions or techniques that may result in harm or injury are unacceptable.  This will be reviewed and appropriate discipline will be applied to these actions and any potential playing rule violations.”

Vincent declined comment on potential discipline for Raiola.  The player’s history will potentially work against him.  Last month, Raiola was fined $10,000 for clubbing Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore in the head.  Raiola escaped discipline for firing into Moore’s knees during a kneel-down snap to end the game.

Some believe the stakes of the game will be a factor in any decision to suspend Raiola.  Per a league source, that won’t matter.

Look for a decision to come by the middle of the week.  Raiola then will have immediate appeal rights, if he’s indeed suspended for Sunday’s game.

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Giants help Tom Coughlin’s cause with third straight win

Eli Manning AP

The two best arguments to use in favor of Tom Coughlin returning as Giants head coach for another season are that the team’s players still play hard for him and that the offense installed this season will be a strong unit with a year of experience under its belt.

Sunday brought support for both notions. The Giants may have been playing too hard for Coughlin, as evidenced by their excessive penalties and two ejections, but they certainly weren’t rolling over with their coach’s fate for 2015 publicly unaddressed. And their offense put up a great performance against a Rams Defense that hadn’t allowed a touchdown in its last three games.

The Giants won 37-27 as Eli Manning completed 25-of-32 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns. Two of the scores went to Odell Beckham, who became the first rookie in NFL history to post at least 130 receiving yards and a touchdown in three straight games during his first pro season. Beckham had eight catches for 148 yards overall and the prospect of teaming him with a healthy Victor Cruz in 2015 is a pretty good reason not to rock the boat on offense for the Giants.

Rookie running back Andre Williams chipped in with 110 yards to add to the reasons for positive thoughts about the future on the offensive side of the ball for the Giants. Recent signs for Coughlin’s future with the team have been encouraging and this win shouldn’t do anything to swing the pendulum the other way.

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Cowboys rout Colts, win NFC East

Tony Romo AP

After an agonizing five-season absence, the Cowboys are back in the playoffs — and as division champions to boot.

Led by a spectacular performance by quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys rolled to a 42-7 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Romo was splendidly efficient, completing 18-of-20 passes for 218 yards with four TD passes, three of which came in the first half as Dallas quickly burst clear of sloppy Indianapolis, which committed eight penalties and three turnovers.

With the win, the Cowboys (11-4) clinched the NFC East title. They are guaranteed of hosting at least one playoff game. They will be the only NFC East club in the postseason, as Philadelphia has now been eliminated from playoff contention.

The Cowboys made short work of the Colts (10-5), who saw their faint chances at a first-round bye go completely by the wayside. The Cowboys never trailed, scoring on their first drive and never looking back.

The game was decided in about a 15-minute span in the first half. After Dallas had taken a 7-0 lead about eight minutes into the game, Indianapolis tried a fake punt on its own end of the field. The play looked it would lead to a first down, but rookie defensive back Dewey McDonald dropped a pass from punter Pat McAfee.

On the next snap, Romo threw his second TD pass, hitting Dez Bryant from 19 yards out to make it 14-0.

And from there, Dallas poured it on. A minute into the second quarter, Romo threw another TD, connecting with Colt Beasley on a 24-yard score. And when tailback DeMarco Murray plunged in from a yard out later in the period, Dallas had a 28-0 lead.

Incredibly, the Colts’ first points didn’t come until about five minutes were left in regulation. By then, quarterback Andrew Luck had been pulled from the game as the AFC South champs looked ahead to January. And for as poorly as they played, the Colts will be one of 12 teams with a chance to win the Super Bowl.

So too will Dallas. And with Romo in sharp form and their defense holding up its end of the bargain, the Cowboys look like real contenders.

It’s enough to make 90s kids dust off their Apex One and Starter Dallas jackets. On Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys were back. And the NFC East, finally, is theirs once again.

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Twelve fans injured by indirect lightning strikes at Bucs game

Buccaneers Lightning Strike AP

A total of 12 people were injured, though it appears none were directly struck by lightning outside today’s Buccaneers-Packers game.

According to WFLA in Tampa, a dozen fans outside Raymond James Stadium were injured by an indirect lightning strike.

Tampa Fire Rescue got a call at 4:11 p.m., right after the Bucs lost a 20-3 decision to the Packers. First responders included crews who were already at the stadium.

Seven patients were taken the St. Joseph’s hospital in stable condition, and four or five more were headed there on their own.

Some of the injured were knocked to the ground when the lightning struck nearby.

Given the large amount of people in a large open space, it’s likely fortunate the injuries weren’t worse.

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Drew Stanton inactive on Sunday night

Cliff Avril, Drew Stanton AP

The Cardinals confirmed that Ryan Lindley was going to start at quarterback no matter what they decided to do with Drew Stanton on Sunday night.

Stanton hurt his knee in the Week 15 victory over the Rams and was able to get in a limited practice during the week, which was enough for Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to leave the door open to Stanton serving as Lindley’s backup against the Seahawks.

That door’s been closed. Stanton is one of seven inactive Cardinals for the NFC West clash, leaving rookie Logan Thomas as the No. 2 behind Lindley. Wide receiver Brittan Golden, safety Chris Clemons, guard Jonathan Cooper, defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu, guard Anthony Steen and defensive end Kareem Martin are also out for Sunday night.

The Seahawks knew they would be without left tackle Russell Okung this week and expected to be without center Max Unger after listing him as doubtful. Both men are inactive along with tight end Tony Moeaki, wide receiver Kevin Norwood, defensive end Demarcus Dobbs, wide receiver Chris Matthews and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.

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Odell Beckham adds to his highlight reel

Janoris Jenkinsm, Janoris Jenkins AP

Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham was in the spotlight often during the first half of Sunday’s game, usually because he and members of the Rams were jawing and taunting one another during a chippy and flag-filled first half.

Beckham remains in the spotlight in the second half, but the reasons are football-related this time. Beckham hauled in an 80-yard touchdown catch to continue his remarkable rookie season. Beckham’s score pushed the Giants to a 34-20 lead through three quarters and pushed him over 90 receiving yards for the eighth straight game. If Beckham closes out the year by topping 90 again next week, he’ll tie an NFL record.

He can put that record alongside the one that makes him the first player to catch 75 passes in his first 11 NFL games. Beckham, who went over 1,000 receiving yards for the year on Sunday, also caught a touchdown in the first half to give him 11 on the season.

It’s not enough to save the Giants season, but Beckham’s exploits certainly make it easier for Giants fans to look toward 2015 on the heels of a third straight season in the NFL wilderness.

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Down 35-0, Colts pull Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck AP

Trailing 35-0 late in the third quarter against the Cowboys, the Colts removed quarterback Andrew Luck from the lineup, replacing him with backup Matt Hasselbeck.

Before departing the game, Luck completed 15-of-22 passes for 109 yards. He was picked twice.

Hasselbeck figures to close this one out, and he could very well see action in the Week 17 finale vs. Tennessee. The Colts (10-4) are all but assured of losing to the Cowboys, which will take Indianapolis out of contention for a first-round bye. Hence, resting Luck next week wouldn’t be completely out of left field.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, are just about set to clinch the NFC East.

Party on, Dallas-Fort Worth. The home team is home free.

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Preliminary diagnosis is Achilles tear for Willie Young

Young Getty Images

The initial news isn’t good for Bears defensive end Willie Young.  Per a league source, the preliminary evaluation indicates that Young suffered a torn Achilles tendon during Sunday’s loss to the Lions.

An MRI will be performed in the morning.

Young, who spent four years with the Lions before joining Chicago, produced 10 sacks this season.  He had a total of six in four prior NFL seasons.

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Raiola claims stomp was inadvertent

Raiola Getty Images

During Sunday’s win over the Bears at Soldier Field, Lions center Dominic Raiola stomped on the ankle of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson.  After the game, Raiola claimed it was an accident.

I know what my intentions were,” Raiola said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.  “We’re out there trying to score a touchdown.  I’m not going to put myself in position to get a 15-yarder, come on now.  I knew I was stumbling.  Me and [guard Rob Sims] had a combination block.  I remember exactly what happened.  Stumbling through.  If I intentionally step on him, that puts me in danger of getting hurt so let’s put that to rest.  He accepted the apology, we move on.”

But Ferguson didn’t accept the apology.  Which makes sense, given the indisputable visual evidence.

“You all saw the play; I don’t have to explain that,” Ferguson told reporters, via Birkett.  “I felt like what needs to stay in between the lines needs to stay in between the lines. . . .  We all saw the play.  You can’t take back what happened with that play, do you know what I mean?  You saw the play.”

As to the apology, Ferguson said, “None of that matters.”

The entire case will matter to the league office.  We’ll have more on this topic during NBC’s Football Night in America, which gets rolling at 7:00 p.m. ET.

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Aaron Rodgers on calf injury: It will take a lot to keep me out next week

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The Packers clinched a playoff spot on Sunday by beating the Buccaneers, but they still need a win next week against the Lions if they’re going to be the NFC North champs.

Getting that win would be much easier if Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback. Rodgers, who has been battling the flu, pulled his left calf early in the game and remained in with limited mobility over the remainder of the contest. Rodgers said that the calf tightened up on him at halftime and that he “just didn’t have the running threat” over the course of the game because of the injury, but he sounded confident that he’d be on the field against Detroit.

“Well, it’s too early to give a 100 percent guarantee, but it would definitely take a lot to hold me out of that game,” Rodgers said, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The injury didn’t stop Rodgers from going 31-of-40 for 318 yards, but a lack of mobility might be more noticeable against the Lions defensive line than it was in Sunday’s game.

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Cowboys 30 minutes away from division title

Greg Toler, Dez Bryant AP

The Cowboys couldn’t have played much better in the first two quarters against Indianapolis.

Tony Romo’s three TD passes and a scoring run by tailback DeMarco Murray have given the Cowboys a 28-0 halftime lead over the flat Colts.

With a win, Dallas will clinch the NFC East and end Philadelphia’s playoff hopes.

Romo was nearly perfect in the first 30 minutes, completing 13-of-14 passes for 155 yards, with scoring passes to Terrence Williams (nine yards), Dez Bryant (19 yards) and Cole Beasley (24 yards).

Murray, for his part, has handled a fairly normal workload despite a broken hand, carrying 14 times for 40 yards.

The Colts have made a bushel of mistakes. Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman committed the most costly of six first-half fouls against Indianapolis; his taunting penalty kept the Cowboys’ first TD drive alive. Later, with the Colts trailing 7-0, defensive back Dewey McDonald dropped a pass from Pat McAfee on a fake punt, which set up Bryant’s TD to give Dallas a 14-0 lead.

The Cowboys’ defense, meanwhile, has been outstanding, and it slammed the door on Indy one last time to end the half when safety J.J. Wilcox picked an Andrew Luck pass in the endzone.

The Colts get the ball to begin the second half, perhaps giving Indianapolis a flicker of hope. But that’s all it will be unless Indy can match Dallas’ passion and execution.

And that could be impossible on this day, with the Cowboys right on the doorstep of the NFC East title.

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Fists and ejections fly in St. Louis

Trey Watts, Orleans Darkwa, Adrien Robinson AP

The Rams and Giants aren’t battling for a playoff spot and they don’t have much in the way of a historical rivalry, but something’s got the two teams riled up in St. Louis.

It’s been a first half filled with post-whistle pushing and shoving, personal fouls for taunting and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Giants kicker Josh Brown for kicking a member of the Rams in the face during a post-play scrum on a kickoff. Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham has been in the middle of much action, drawing a taunting penalty of his own for spinning the ball near Rams safety T.J. McDonald after a touchdown and then being the recipient of taunting from McDonald later in the half. Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree was also penalized for hitting Beckham out of bounds  near the end of the second quarter, touching off a major brawl that resulted in several ejections.

Rams defensive end William Hayes, Giants wide receiver Preston Parker and Giants defensive end Damontre Moore were all ejected for their roles in the fight. There were punches thrown and referee Pete Morelli also announced that contact had been made with an official by a member of the Giants, which left them down 15 yards when all was said and done.

When the two teams weren’t fussing and feuding, the Giants have controlled the action. They scored on their first drive, forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and turned a Shaun Hill interception into three more points on the way to a 20-13 halftime lead. Beckham’s touchdown after the fumble was the first the Rams Defense allowed in 12 quarters and running back Orleans Darkwa also found the end zone for his first NFL touchdown.

Eli Manning was 16-of-18 for 200 yards in the first two quarters, outgaining the Rams by 44 yards and outpacing the 108 penalty yards racked up by his team.

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With loss at Houston, Baltimore’s postseason hopes take a hit

J.J. Watt, Joe Flacco AP

An off day by the offense has put Baltimore’s playoff hopes in some peril.

The underdog Texans intercepted quarterback Joe Flacco three times and shut down Baltimore’s ground game en route to a 25-13 victory on Sunday in Houston. In defeat, the Ravens gained just 3.1 yards per play.

With the loss, the Ravens fell to 9-6, and they have fallen behind San Diego in the AFC pecking order. The Chargers (9-6) now are in firm control of their playoff hopes; if they win next Sunday at Kansas City, they are in the postseason, as they have already defeated Baltimore and Buffalo (8-6).

Flacco struggled through one of his worst days as a pro, completing just 21-of-50 passes for 195 yards. He did throw a pair of TD passes to Torrey Smith, but it was a nightmarish afternoon for the former Super Bowl MVP.

The Ravens had some tough injury luck, too, with left tackle Eugene Monroe and right tackle Ricky Wagner departing with injuries.

Starting less than a week after signing with the Texans, quarterback Case Keenum completed just 20-of-42 passes for 185 yards, and he was picked once. However, he was better than Flacco, which speaks to the sort of day the Ravens’ offense endured.

Texans star tailback Arian Foster had a productive day, racking up 96 yards on 25 carries and tossing a five-yard TD pass on an option pass. By contrast, the Ravens got just 33 yards on 16 carries from their ground game.

The Ravens host fading Cleveland next week, but they will need more than a just a win now to secure a playoff spot. Moreover, they are now eliminated from AFC North contention, with Cincinnati (9-4-1) guaranteed to have a better record than Baltimore.

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Cam Newton rips “classless” fans who cheered Manziel injury

Johnny Manziel AP

Cam Newton said he liked the support he heard from the home fans Sunday.

But he didn’t like the ones who cheered when Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel went down with a hamstring injury.

Newton said he thought it was “classless,” when some fans cheered as Manziel was being tended to by trainers.

“We’re better than that,” he said, before walking out of the interview room.

Newton wasn’t making a blanket statement, or ripping his entire fanbase. Just the stupid ones, who cheered when an opponent was down.

Manziel didn’t return in the second half, after leaving just before halftime.

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