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Indy’s defense ranks No. 1 in NFL

Green Bay Packers' Darnell Savage breaks up a pass intended for Jacksonville Jaguars' Terry Godwin during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts embrace these daunting midseason tests.

First, they tried to contain reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. Then they contended with 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry. On Sunday, the Colts face a third consecutive challenge — slowing down two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ potent offense.

Ace this one, and Indy will be well on its way to claiming the title of NFL’s stingiest defense.

“You can tell everybody’s on the same page and they fly around. It’s one of the faster units we’ll have played this year,” Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur said. “They’re physical, they know how to attack the ball. And it’s hard to get big plays on them. So we’re going to have to do a great job.”

At the moment, the Colts (6-3) sit at the top of the class.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers passes against the Tennessee Titans in the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

They’re No. 1 in overall defense, No. 2 against the pass, No. 3 against the run, No. 4 in scoring defense and No. 6 in turnover differential. They’re tied for second in interceptions with 11, have scored three touchdowns and had two safeties. And for the first time in years, it’s the defense that has helped Indy grab a share of the AFC South lead.

But Colts coach Frank Reich, a longtime NFL quarterback, knows just how difficult Rodgers can be on opposing defenses.

“He can make every throw from every arm angle and he gets it out faster than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Reich said. “He can give that little flick of the wrist to get that thing out. His feet don’t have to be right, because of his arm strength he can put the ball anywhere he wants. Then he can extend plays.”

While Rodgers remains the leader of the Packers (7-2), LaFleur has tried to alleviate some of the burden on his quarterback. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have emerged as a dynamic duo out of the backfield, and Davante Adams is one of the league’s top receivers.

Together, they have pushed Green Bay to the top of the NFC North and the Packers are the first team in NFL history to average 30 or more points per game while committing five or fewer turnovers through nine games.

The question is whether the Packers run defense will improve after allowing 337 yards rushing and two 100-yard runners over the past three games.

Rodgers will poke and prod the Colts defense, trying to find areas he can exploit. Indy expects nothing less and intends to stand up to the best.

“I know he’s looking for weakness,” said defensive end Justin Houston, the 2014 NFL sacks champ. “He’s going to try to attack you, make sure you’re playing sound football, try to get the defensive line to jump offside. He’s known for his hard counts and when you have that much experience, it’s like having a coach on the field. We’ll have our hands full.”

RIVERS’ REVIVAL

A month ago, Philip Rivers’ critics questioned whether the 38-year-old quarterback was holding back Indy’s offense.

But over the past four weeks, Rivers has played at a high level. He’s 106 of 159 (66.7%) with 1,168 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. The eight-time Pro Bowler is expected to make his 234th consecutive start, tying Eli Manning for the 10th-longest streak in league history. And if he finishes with a passer rating of 100 or better, he’ll tie former Packers star and Hall of Famer Brett Favre for No. 4 on the league’s all-time list with 108 games with a rating of at least 100.

For Rivers, it’s fun to face players of Rodgers’ stature.

“I’ve always appreciated and thought it was special going against a quarterback like him,” Rivers said. “Going back through the years from the Favres to the (Peyton) Mannings, with Drew (Brees) and (Ben) Roethlisberger and Eli (Manning) and I could keep going — (Tom) Brady. I’m not intentionally leaving anyone out. It is special.”

For Rodgers, it’s becoming old hat. Rivers will be the seventh quarterback in his 30s or 40s that Rodgers has played this season. He’s already gone up against 32-year-old Kirk Cousins twice, 32-year-old Matthew Stafford, the 41-year-old Brees, 35-year-old Matt Ryan and 43-year-old Tom Brady.

WINLESS IN INDY

In the 1960s, this was one of the most compelling matchups in football. But since the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, it’s been a one-sided road show for the Packers. They are 0-4 all time at the RCA Dome and Lucas Oil Stadium, losing 30-27 in 2012, Andrew Luck’s rookie season, during their previous visit.

SACKED OUT

Green Bay and Indy both have strong offensive lines and it’s reflected in the numbers. Indy has allowed a league-low nine sacks this season. The Packers have allowed 11, tied for the third-lowest total. And with Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari returning from a broken rib last week, both lines should be at full strength Sunday.

SERIES RECORD – Colts lead 22-21-1

LAST MEETING – Colts beat Packers 31-26 on Nov. 6, 2016 at Green Bay

LAST WEEK – Packers beat Jaguars 24-20; Colts won at Titans 34-17

AP PRO32 RANKING – Packers No. 4, Colts No. 11

PACKERS OFFENSE – OVERALL (6), RUSH (11), PASS (6).

PACKERS DEFENSE – OVERALL (9), RUSH (12), PASS (13).

COLTS OFFENSE – OVERALL (15), RUSH (20), PASS (10).

COLTS DEFENSE – OVERALL (1), RUSH (3), PASS (2).

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES – The Packers are tied with New Orleans for the NFC’s best record, but Green Bay holds the tiebreaker after beating the Saints on Sept. 27. … It’s the first time since 1996-97 the Packers have been 7-2 in consecutive seasons. …. Green Bay has beaten its first two AFC South opponents, Houston and Jacksonville. The Packers host Tennessee on Dec. 27

… QB Aaron Rodgers has thrown 26 TD passes and just three interceptions, marking only the second time an NFL player has thrown for at least 26 touchdowns with three or fewer interceptions through nine games. Rodgers had 28 TD passes and three interceptions in 2011. … Aaron Jones has 38 carries for 109 yards one touchdown in his last three games.

… WR Davante Adams shares the NFL lead with nine TD catches despite missing two games because of a hamstring injury. Adam Thielen of Minnesota and Tyreek Hill of Kansas City also have nine. … The Packers activated WR Allen Lazard from injured reserve this week. Lazard missed the previous six games with a core injury.

… Green Bay is the first team in league history to average 30 points or more and have five or fewer turnovers through its first nine games. … The Packers lead the NFL in time of possession at 33:08. … Both teams’ defenses are ranked among the league’s six best units for percentage of three-and-outs. Green Bay is third at 23.1% while the Colts are sixth at 21.7%.

… Indy has allowed a league-low nine sacks while the Packers have allowed the third fewest with 11.

… Colts RB Nyheim Hines is one of nine players in the league with at least three multi-touchdown games this season. Hines has three. … Four-time Pro Bowl WR T.Y. Hilton needs 56 yards from scrimmage to become the sixth player in Colts history with 9,000.

… Indy DE Denico Autry has a sack in three consecutive games, the second-longest active streak in the league. … Indy CB T.J. Carrie has scored on an interception return and off a blocked punt this season

Fantasy tip: Green Bay has struggled against the run recently and the Colts put a premium on the ground game. The combination could create a big day for former Wisconsin star Jonathan Taylor or Hines, who has had the hot hand lately.

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