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Colts hope to make playoff push by turning around home record against Buccaneers

Zaire Franklin #44 of the Indianapolis Colts is seen during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Lucas Oil Stadium on Oct. 29, 2023, in Indianapolis. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts got back into the playoff mix with wins at Carolina and against the New England Patriots in Germany.

To stay there, they’ll need to find a way to play like the home team when they’re in Indy.

The Colts’ strange season includes a 1-4 mark at Lucas Oil Stadium. They are 1-10 at home over the past 13 months with myriad close calls and explanations for what’s gone wrong, ranging from dumb luck to poor execution.

“Some things just didn’t go our way in a couple of these home games. We’ll leave the word ‘calls’ out of it,” linebacker Zaire Franklin said. “Look, I think we’ll be able to put together a good performance and hopefully come away with a victory Sunday.”

Whatever the rationale, there’s little doubt about what’s gone wrong during this recent stretch or when it actually began — with Las Vegas’ last-second field goal on Jan 2, 2022.

Instead of clinching a playoff spot that day, Indy was eliminated from the postseason with another loss the following week. Since then, there have been four losses to divisional foes, an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams earlier this season and blown leads in the final two minutes against Washington and Philadelphia last year along with Cleveland last month.

The good news this week is Indy hosts Tampa Bay (4-6), which has struggled as much lately on the road as Indy has at home. The Buccaneers have lost three straight on the road, which has sent them into a 1-5 tailspin and put their two-year hold as AFC South champs in jeopardy.

The Bucs will play three of their next four games away from home.

“I think everybody understands where we’re at right now,” Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Yeah, there’s a little bit more emphasis on each game, but it should be that way each week — you should be trying to win. Right now, there just needs to be a singular focus on trying to find a way to win on the road against Indy.”

The Colts are just as motivated.

“We are right in the mix,” 2021 NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor said. “To be able to rally guys together, to get focused — all is not lost here at all. Not one bit. Everything we want is still in front of us. It’s going to be on us in this locker room to come together.”

TIGHT RACE

Despite their current skid following a 3-1 start, the Bucs are only one game behind NFC South-leading New Orleans.

Sunday’s game is the second of four road stops during a five-game stretch, and coach Todd Bowles said his team remains hopeful with four division games remaining.

“I think our older guys are confident, but we have a lot of young guys on this team, so they weren’t even here last year,” he said. “It’s a whole different year, a whole different group of guys. We have to scrap and fight for everything we get. We understand that, and we’re prepared for it.”

MISSING PIECE

The Colts cut three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard earlier this week. And it will be different not having the fan favorite around.

While the large poster featuring Leonard on the stadium facade carries a new message — “Thanks for the memories” — Leonard’s former teammates will miss what the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year brought to the field.

“Those signature sounds — when you can’t see him, but you hear it and you know that it’s Shaq right there,” Taylor said.

PRODUCTIVE DUO

Rookie defensive lineman Calijah Kancey and linebacker Yaya Diaby are showing why the Bucs drafted them in the first and third rounds.

Kancey, penciled in as a starter on a draft night, missed three games and most of a fourth because of a calf injury that kept him out of action most of training camp. Diaby’s role has increased as the season progressed.

The pair has combined for 13 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits, six sacks and 35 pressures. Diaby had two sacks against the 49ers last week.

“Obviously he’s a very good football player, and he’s coming on like gangbusters,” Bowles said, referring to Diaby. “It’s hard to keep him off the field, and he’s getting more and more time.”

AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.