Cowboys, Colts clash in critical confrontation
Two teams on similar upward trajectories get together Sunday in Indianapolis for a game with postseason implications.
The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts rebounded from slow starts and find themselves in a place they might not have imagined earlier in the season.
The Cowboys (8-5) are on the brink of winning the NFC East after a 3-5 start. The Colts (7-6) are one of the AFC South teams chasing a division title or wild-card playoff spot.
Since acquiring wide receiver Amari Cooper and promoting Marc Colombo to offensive line coach during the bye week, the Cowboys have won five of six -- and five in a row after a 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 9.
"That's the starting point, I think, for any team in this league -- to try and win their division," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "We've put ourselves in a position to do that. But you're exactly right. The approach won't change, the focus won't change."
A Cowboys win would guarantee that they would finish ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants in the NFC East. The second-place Washington Redskins are in a tailspin and unlikely to catch the Cowboys, particularly if they defeat the Colts.
It's no secret that the Cowboys have taken off since the arrival of Cooper before their eighth game of the year in a trade with the Oakland Raiders.
Quarterback Dak Prescott has benefited, averaging 294.2 passing yards during Dallas' five-game winning streak. Cooper has caught 40 passes in six games with the Cowboys, who will face a Colts defense that has given up 242.4 passing yards per game.
The Cowboys could be without standout right guard Zack Martin, who aggravated an MCL injury in the 29-23 victory over the Eagles last Sunday. But running back Ezekiel Elliott, who also left that game for a brief period with a neck stinger before returning, should be available against the Colts.
Elliott passed the Rams' Todd Gurley II for the NFL's rushing lead after running for 113 yards on 28 carries against the Eagles. He also caught 12 passes for 79 yards. Elliott now has four games of more than 180 total yards this season and the Cowboys have won each one.
The Cowboys' defense will have to contend with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, whose 556 yards in the past four games are the most in the NFL during that stretch.
Hilton caught nine passes for 199 yards in the Colts' 24-21 win last Sunday in Houston. In the last five games, he has 36 receptions for 633 yards and two touchdowns.
"Just taking what the defense is giving me," Hilton said. "The coaches are doing a great job of moving me, putting me in position to thrive and me and Andrew, after that, we do what we do."
The Colts have won six of seven games in large part because of Hilton's emergence. For much of this season, tight end Eric Ebron received his share of attention along with Hilton. Last Sunday, Ebron caught his career-best 12th touchdown pass to set a franchise record for a tight end.
"It's probably obvious to anybody watching what kind of spark T.Y. provides for our team when he gets the ball in his hands," Luck said.
"T.Y. has a unique way of doing things that I don't think many others can quite replicate. He does things very, very well. This is our seventh year together and I appreciate what he brings to the table specifically on the football field. He does some really, really cool stuff."
Luck has completed a career-best 67.7 percent of his passes for 3,759 yards with 34 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
The Colts' eighth-ranked rushing defense will be put to the test the next two weeks by Elliott and Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
"I mean these guys are the best, so it will be a great challenge," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "It's going to take every person over there, but I think defenses like that challenge. I know our defense will like that challenge. It's not going to be easy, they are going to get some runs. If Zeke has 95 yards, that might be considered a win."
Updated December 12, 2018