Dec. 31—INDIANAPOLIS — For the past few weeks — as the team's playoff hopes dimmed before disappearing all together — the Indianapolis Colts have been searching for creative ways to remain motivated.
There's a professional obligation, of course, to put forward your best effort, and the players are still being judged by the tape they put out. If they want a role on this roster or with any of the other 31 NFL teams next season, they can't be caught taking plays off now.
But there's a more primal motivational tool as the Colts (4-10-1) prepare to visit the New York Giants (8-6-1) on Sunday.
Indianapolis has lost five consecutive games since interim head coach Jeff Saturday won his debut against the Las Vegas Raiders on Nov. 13.
Its next chance to put that streak to rest will come across the banks from the city that never sleeps.
"We have to do our jobs," defensive tackle Grover Stewart said. "Our team can be down for six weeks and then be hot the next week. We have to be on our keys and go out there and do our thing."
Stewart has been exemplary at his job this season. He enters Week 17 with career highs of 67 tackles, nine tackles for loss, four sacks and six quarterback hits.
He's been as productive from the nose tackle position as any defensive coordinator could hope for, and his exclusion from the Pro Bowl roster is a travesty.
But Stewart's unique contributions — he's blown up at least one series in every game the Colts have played this season — are easily lost in a season that has gone this far south.
Despite some recent struggles of their own, the Giants are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
New York hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2016 and finished 4-13 a year ago. But first-year head coach Brian Daboll has the Giants one victory away from a postseason berth.
Sunday will mark the third consecutive game in which Indianapolis' opponent is playing to clinch a playoff spot. The Minnesota Vikings did so with an historic 33-point comeback in a 39-36 overtime victory on Dec. 17, and the Los Angeles Chargers turned the trick with a breezy 20-3 decision Monday night.
If the Colts are going to play spoiler the third time around, they'll need to overcome what is expected to be a raucous environment at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
"They're playing at a high level," Indianapolis quarterback Nick Foles said. "They're doing a nice job. I think just playing in that environment — I've played in it before. It's not an easy environment to play in. The NFC East fan bases are extremely crazy fan bases. I played in it for a lot of my career and have a lot of respect for the fan base out there.
"So I know it'll be a tough test going in there. I think the big thing is just the communication. We have to communicate really well because of the noise and because of the atmosphere — it will add to the game."
The Colts have plenty of issues to fix on the league's 31st-ranked scoring offense and are coming off one of their worst performances of the year.
Foles was 17-of-29 for 143 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions and was sacked seven times in his first start of the year against the Chargers.
The game marked the second time this year Indianapolis failed to convert a third down (0-for-10) and the fourth time it failed to score a touchdown.
The Giants have some concerns of their own.
New York has just one win and one tie in its last six outings, and it has been outscored by an aggregate of 42 points during that span.
The Giants rank 20th in both scoring offense (20.7 points per game) and defense (22.6), but they are 8-3-1 in games decided by eight points or less and have one of the league's most explosive players in running back Saquon Barkley.
As the engine of New York's offense, Barkley has rushed for 1,254 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 55 passes for 343 yards.
Containing the 25-year-old running back will be of utmost importance, but the Colts' goals are even simpler.
Indianapolis has failed to find consistency for much of the season and wants nothing more than to put four solid quarters together on New Year's Day.
"Wins would be great," Saturday said of his hopes for the final two games of the season. "That's the first goal, but complete performances. I think our defense — again — they're making strides. They're pushing and hitting goals on sacks and the things that they're doing. They're increasing in turnovers the last two weeks. We're really excited about what they've done on that side.
"So, from that perspective, playing a complete game (is the goal) — offense, defense and special teams, everybody pulling their own weight. Then being able to take steps forward that way to build on it."