INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts still sound motivated.
With the playoffs out of reach, their championship quest on hold for another season and two seemingly meaningless games left, coach Frank Reich spent the past few days making some adjustments.
And explaining to players exactly what's at stake.
“The goals are pretty simple. I mean win both games," he said. “We've got to win this week. So finish 8-8, that is one goal. The other goal is — we are still training. There is an urgency now, but there is a bigger picture. You are always getting better.”
The Colts (6-8) certainly didn't expect to be talking this way heading into Sunday's game against Carolina after sitting atop the AFC South midway through the season.
But a rash of injuries, a flurry of costly special teams mistakes, and back-to-back sub-par defensive performances led to a fourth consecutive loss Monday at New Orleans, sealing Indy's fate. The Colts have lost six of their last seven.
The Panthers (5-9) certainly understand Indy's plight.
Kyle Allen won four of his first five starts after replacing the injured Cam Newton, prompting some to speculate Allen could be Newton's eventual successor. Since then, though, the Panthers have fallen out of contention with six straight losses.
The collapse led to the ouster of longtime coach Ron Rivera in early December and Allen has been benched largely because of his turnover-prone ways. On Sunday, rookie Will Grier will make his first start in place of Allen.
“I think it’s just a football game," interim coach Perry Fewell said when asked if he had any tips for Grier. “A credit to the movie ‘Hoosiers,’ it’s 53 1/3 yards wide, 100 yards long. We practice on it every day and play on it on Sundays, so it should be no different for him.”
Nor to Fewell.
Ten years ago, he closed the season as Buffalo Bills interim coach with a 30-7 victory when the Super Bowl-bound Colts rested their starters in the meaningless finale. Reich plans to play it straight, using his regulars, maybe even giving four-time Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton more playing time as he continues recovering from an injured calf.
And inside in Indy's locker room the message is simple: win before going home for the offseason.
“We are all men, we all trust each other, we're going to fight for our brothers," Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard said. “We've got to win."
THE GREAT CHASE
Christian McCaffrey hopes to celebrate his Pro Bowl selection by joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the third running back in history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. It will take some work. McCaffrey needs 186 yards receiving over the final two games to become the third member of the club.
While he said stats don’t drive him and credits his offensive line for a season in which he leads the league in yards from scrimmage (2,121) and total touchdowns (18), he's impressed many around the league, too.
“He's a great guy in this league and he's been dominating the whole year,” Leonard said. “We've got to stop him, we've got to slow him down.”
Reich acknowledged he might use the final two games to try some new wrinkles.
Though he wouldn't disclose specifically what he may experiment with, he said quarterback Jacoby Brissett also expressed a desire to change it up.
“He had a few things," Reich said. “He said, ‘Hey, can we do a little bit more of this and why don’t we try this?’ A few small things that I thought were good suggestions.”
It will be interesting to see how the quarterback change impacts Panthers receiver DJ Moore, who has averaged more than 101 yards and caught three TD passes in the last seven games.
Moore said it doesn't matter who's throwing the ball, explaining his recent success is more about the system than the quarterback.
“I just do my job,” Moore said.
Indy's inability to close out games is one reason the Colts will miss the postseason for the fourth time in five years. They've been outscored 31-7 in the fourth quarter of the last three games. Even worse, the Colts' once strong running game has virtually ground to a halt with Marlon Mack gaining just 57 yards on 24 carries the last two weeks.
Clearly that's an area Reich wants to fix and it could happen this week against a defense that is allowing a league-worst 5.19 yards per carry.
But the Colts know they must execute better, too.
“We haven’t game planned it well enough as coaches. We haven’t executed it well enough as a team and some of it is just sheer attempts," he said. "We’ve got to try and straighten that out the next two weeks.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, also contributed to this report.
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