INDIANAPOLIS – They're not flexing the start of the Indianapolis Colts vs. Buffalo Bills game into prime time. Not this season. Not likely ever.
That doesn't mean it's not a marquee game for the Colts.
Colts interim coach Bruce Arians goes so far as to predict postseason intensity, which is pushing it, but only slightly.
“This is a playoff game for us,” Arians said. “We have to take that approach because Buffalo is taking that approach. They're do-or-die, we better be do-or-die. That's been our mindset all week.”
In truth, it's more do-or-stumble than do-or-die for the Colts.
Given the teams in the AFC playoff picture, the Colts (6-4) should be able to make playoffs with a 9-7 record. That record is possible even with a loss to the Bills, but a win over the Bills keeps the Colts in position for better than 9-7.
The Colts should be favored in three of their last six games: vs. Buffalo, vs. Tennessee and at Kansas City. That leaves a road game at Detroit and two games with division leader Houston.
If they win the games they should, they need to steal one of the others. Winning at erratic Detroit (Dec. 2) is a possibility, but the Colts have been much less effective on the road. Houston's a powerful team, but so is Green Bay, so maybe a home win is possible.
At any rate, the Colts must beat the Bills to keep all of this in play.
“We are in a position now where if we win out, we're in,” Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. “There are a lot of teams that want our position. They are going to treat every game like a playoff game and we need to do the same. Every game from now on is going to be real crucial for this ballclub.”
Wayne insists, as a veteran should, that the Colts not look ahead or spend time dwelling on the current playoff standings.
If the season ended today, the Colts would be the No.5 seed as a wild card. But at 6-4, they aren't far ahead of the Steelers (6-4), Bengals (5-5) and four 4-6 teams (Chargers, Titans, Bills and Dolphins).
“We just have to control this week,” Arians said Monday. “We have to control Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Just keep adding them up. If we start worrying about the playoffs, we'll end up 6-10.”
The Colts enter Sunday's game as healthy as they've been all season. Only two of their recently injured players are questionable: cornerback Vontae Davis and tight end Coby Fleener. The fact the Colts signed tight end Dominque Jones this week seemed to portend Fleener being out again, but Arians said Friday he remains a possibility to play.
Colts wide receiver Donnie Avery is fine and cleared after suffering some concussion symptoms last week.
That's good news for quarterback Andrew Luck since it appears he'll have all his weapons with the possible exception of Fleener and running back Donald Brown.
The Colts have yet to lose consecutive games and are 4-1 at home, with the only loss being the inexplicable last-minute defeat to the Jaguars.
Arians credited the team's knack for bouncing back from losses to the team's veterans.
“They're the best I've been around and they're continually harping on these young guys on what it takes to win and we're going to come back,” Arians said. “Fortunately, we were able to come back home after those losses and win.”
The blowout loss to the Patriots was on another level, but the previous road loss to the Jets was an embarrassment, too.
Buffalo has an ability to put up some points with the Ryan Fitzpatrick-directed offense when it plays well. The Bills put up 31 points in a 37-31 loss to New England. The Colts scored 24 against the Patriots last week.
Fitzpatrick's weapons include running backs C.J. Spiller (6.6 yards per carry) and Fred Jackson, wide receivers Steve Johnson (47 catches) and Donald Jones, and tight end Scott Chandler.
“They have two outstanding backs,” Colts defensive end Cory Redding said. “Both of them are fast, elusive, quick. (They have) a quarterback that can get the ball down the field, receivers that can run deep, intermediate routes that give guys trouble.”
The Bills are, in many ways, the perfect opponent for the Colts. They're good, but not great. They're dangerous but containable. Their defense bends and sometimes breaks.
If the Colts are going to make the playoffs, this is the type of game they have to win.
It's not a marquee game for a television audience. But it's as important as any Patriots or Packers game in the Colts' bid to become a surprise playoff team in Luck's first season.