NASHVILLE, TN – DECEMBER 30: Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Football is a compartmentalized game. Teams who realize success do so as a result of all the moving parts performing seamlessly as part of a whole. Consequently, struggles tend to crop up when a weak link conspires to hold a given team’s potential back.

The Indianapolis Colts have experienced both situations over the past few years. In 2016, the last time Andrew Luck saw action before he returned this season, his offensive line consistently let him down. Near constant breakdowns in pass protection saw him running for his life on a regular basis. Opposing pass rushers ended up sacking him 41 times, tied for the second-highest total in the NFL that year.

Fast forward to 2018 and it’s almost a complete 180. General manager Chris Ballard made it a high priority to retool the offensive line in the off-season. It included the crown jewel pick of the Colts 2018 draft, guard Quenton Nelson. Suddenly, Luck went from one of the most sacked quarterbacks to the least sacked among players who made at least 500 pass attempts this year. It’s a big reason Luck is a virtual shoo-in to win Comeback Player of the Year.

But Luck’s career renaissance is just part of the story. This season has also seen the emergence of Marlon Mack as one of the top young running backs in the NFL. Mack comprised a highly talented crop of mid-round (rounds 3-5) picks back in 2017. Many are already household names, including Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt (even if it’s suddenly for all the wrong reasons), James Conner, and Tarik Cohen. In comparison with those four, Mack largely fell under the radar during his rookie year.

The fact that the Colts’ backfield remained in Frank Gore‘s grasp last year precipitated Mack’s rather quiet first year in the league. Gore led the team with 961 rushing yards which also ranked 12th among NFL backs in 2017. As an aside, that came as a rather impressive feat given Indy’s O-line struggles and the fact that Gore pulled it off at the age of 34. But it relegated to Mack to a complementary role. He rushed the ball just 93 times as a rookie, accumulating just 358 yards and three rushing touchdowns.

Still, even Gore himself found the end zone on the ground just three times last year. It spoke to a frustrating inability to punch it in when the ball travels into the red zone. Sure enough, Indy ranked second-worst among NFL teams in red zone touchdown percentage in 2017. What it hints at is the fact that the offensive line failed to win at the point of attack, especially when the Colts were in potential scoring situations.

Red Zone Improvement and the Emergence of the Mack Attack

What a difference a year makes. Ballard’s shrewd off-season moves set up first-year head coach Frank Reich for immediate success. Behind a retooled offensive line, the Colts went from 31st to fifth in red zone touchdown percentage. And with Gore off to the Miami Dolphins, Mack had his opportunity to shine. Suffice it to say he took the bull by the horns.

Utilizing a combination of physical downhill running and the ability to make defenders miss in space, Mack scampered his way to 908 rushing yards during the regular season. He also tripled his rushing touchdown output, managing nine on the ground while tallying one receiving touchdown. And in the Colts first playoff appearance in four years, Mack truly announced his arrival as an elite back. His career-high 148 rush yards in a dominant 21-7 win over the Houston Texans was the highest total of wild-card weekend.

Offensive Line Epitomizing “Group Effort” on Offense

Mack’s coming out party this season has cemented himself as a steal on day three of the 2017 draft. But a large part of his success is due to the improved running lanes the big boys up front are creating for him. Winning the battle in the trenches is something this team wasn’t capable of on a consistent basis until this year. Now that they are, it’s leveraging the talent of both Luck and Mack.

“It always starts up front,” Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni told ESPN. “Like I said to those guys, it was just, ‘We ride and die with our offensive line,’ and (against the Texans) they were physical, they were mean, they were nasty, they knew what to do and they started everything out, and our tight ends blocked well. Our receivers were going in there and blocking — it truly is a full group effort when you run the ball like that.”

Limiting negative plays is an indispensable element of competent play on the offensive side of the ball. And it’s something this Colts offensive line excelled in on a weekly basis. Add in the defense’s ability to consistently make plays in the opponent’s backfield and it’s no surprise that the Colts have gotten to this point. All in all, the team as a whole finished the regular season with a tackle for loss differential of +42 which led all AFC teams.

That’s not to say that there weren’t growing pains. Most fans are well aware that the Colts started the season 1-5. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mack played in only one of those first six games as he dealt with a hamstring injury early in the year. Since then, they’ve played arguably the best football of any team in the NFL. That much is certain given they won nine of their last 10 regular season contests. In so doing, they became just the second team since the league went to a 16-game schedule to make the playoffs after losing five of their first six games.

Showtime at Arrowhead

For Mack and the Colts, their next challenge comes against the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a mouthwatering quarterback battle with Luck and Patrick Mahomes having thrown for a combined 89 touchdown passes during the regular season. That’s the most heading into a playoff game in NFL history. But Mack himself might have a favorable matchup. The Chiefs rank 27th in rushing defense (2,114 yards) and 29th in rushing touchdowns conceded (19).

Saturday’s contest at what will be a raucous Arrowhead Stadium is the latest business trip this squad is embarking on in their unlikely quest to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII. Even when they erased their slow start to the season, not many gave them a chance to get to this point. Yet here they are. Just two wins away from Atlanta and that grandest of sports stages. The latest roadblock in their way is a team with a bona fide MVP candidate. Mack bringing his A-game is certainly a key to victory. But his head coach knows that keeping up the overall intensity on both sides of the ball is another.

“I think the hardest thing to do is just to maintain that high level,” Reich told Stacey Dales of NFL Network. “And, you know, I think if anything for our younger team, per se, that’s been one of the best things for me to see is for us to handle the winning week in and week out.”

One, Not Done

One of the key phrases in the above sound byte is “younger team.” There’s both a positive and negative connotation there. From a negative standpoint, it may hint that there’s a risk of the stage proving too large on Saturday. On the other hand, this team isn’t going anywhere regardless of what happens against the Chiefs. Indy has over $122 million in cap space next year, the most in the league. That should enable them to build upon their 2018 campaign which, for all intents and purposes, is already a resounding success.

The Colts are playing with house money at this point. Despite the youth on the team of which Mack is certainly a part of, Luck has been here before. Meanwhile, Saturday’s contest is Mahomes first-ever playoff game. At the same time, he’s under a lot of pressure to erase an extended stretch of Chiefs playoff futility. Not only are they in search of their first postseason win over the Colts (they’re 0-4 all-time). But their last home playoff triumph came 25 years ago. If that burden proves too cumbersome, especially as it relates to the Chiefs’ ability to defend the run, look for the Mack attack to feast.

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