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Colts off, running through playoffs with strong ground game

(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

By MICHAEL MAROT

AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Frank Reich stuck with his old-school philosophy even when the Indianapolis Colts were losing games in September and early October.

The Indianapolis Colts' first-year coach insisted that even in an increasingly pass-happy league a balanced offense would turn them into real AFC contenders.

Over the past 11 weeks, the perfect one-two combination has landed plenty of scoring punches, propelling the Colts into an improbable divisional-round matchup at AFC West champion Kansas City.

"To me, it's imposing your will on the defense and what that is, is running when you want to run and throwing when you want to throw and being effective at it," Reich said on a conference call Sunday. "Always use the boxer analogy, it's not just throwing punches wildly, it's landing punches."

Few teams have delivered more big blows since Indy's 1-5 start.

On Saturday, second-year running back Marlon Mack carried 24 times for a career-high 148 yards and one touchdown, leading the Colts (11-6) to a 21-7 victory at Houston. They hurt the league's No. 3 run defense for a playoff franchise-record 200 yards, breaking the previous mark of 191 from their Super Bowl win over Chicago in February 2007.

Mack also broke Zack Crockett's single-game franchise playoff rushing record (147), set in 1995.

And this week, Mack could again become the feature attraction against a defense that finished No. 27 against the run this season.

If all this sounds eerily familiar to longtime Chiefs fans, it's understandable given the previous results.

Edgerrin James ran for 125 yards, the third-highest postseason total in franchise history, in a 38-31 victory at Kansas City in January 2004. Joseph Addai rushed for 122 of the Colts' 188 yards, now the third-highest total in franchise history, in a 23-8 wild-card round victory over Kansas City. That win jump-started Indy's title run following the 2006 season.

"It's December football into January," tight end Eric Ebron said Saturday. "That's what we've got to try to do. We pass it when we have to, but we're going to try and dominate the run game and try to dominate the line of scrimmage. That's the kind of football you have to play now."

Even if it deviates from Indy's longtime image. With Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck behind center for most of the past two decades, the league-wide perception has largely been the Colts are a pass-first team.

But Reich has spent this season trying to find balance, and after a rugged start the Colts have seen the benefits.

With All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, a rookie, solidifying the left side of the offensive line and the emergence of right tackle Braden Smith, another rookie, Indy has been able to run effectively across the field.

And when Mack returned after missing four of the first five games because of a hamstring injury, the Colts hit their groove.

Mack has run for 1,022 yards and 10 touchdowns in the past 11 games, topping the 100-yard mark five times and establishing career highs in four of those games including Saturday's. He ran for 119 yards and a score in the Colts' Week 17 playoff-clinching victory at Tennessee and is now the first Indy player since James in 2005, to run for a TD in five consecutive games.

Not surprisingly, the Colts have gone 10-1 during that stretch, becoming the third team in league history to make the postseason after starting 1-5 and just the second to win a playoff game. The Chiefs also won a wild-card game in the 2015 season before losing at New England in the divisional round.

If the Colts can follow the script once more this weekend, they would become the first 1-5 team to play for a conference championship - and there's no doubt inside this locker room they can.

"We know, and Frank has preached this, in any football game whether it's playoff or not, you need to control the line of scrimmage," Luck said.

"By no means was it perfect (Saturday), but man the positive run yards we got were great and we know that as an offense when we can do that, we can have a great balance. We can throw it a bunch. We can huddle up. We can go up tempo. We can slow down the tempo. We can run it."

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Updated January 6, 2019

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