With just four days rest and a plane trip to Tennessee, the Colts were eager for some redemption after what happened against St. Louis. Their bounce back, or atonement, as Andrew Luck referred to it this week, came in the form of a 30-27 win that reasserted them as the top dogs in the AFC South.
Tell me if you’ve heard this storyline before: The Colts suffered through a miserable first two quarters followed by a second half that was every bit as impressive as the first was hideous.
Indianapolis got a sack from Cory Redding right out of the gate, the type of play that looked like a statement, a tone setter. It did not, however, set the tone for the game. Tennessee backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick completed a quick 10-yard pass on the next play, and then – on just the third play of the game – Indy’s defense had to call a time out.
They looked flustered and a little lost. Naturally, that drive ended in a Tennessee touchdown – a 30-yard run by the rejuvenated Chris Johnson.
The Colts, as they often do in the first quarter, answered with a three and out. On third down, Griff Whalen dropped an open look while Anthony Castonzo was called for an illegal formation penalty.
Unlike last week, the Colts’ punt coverage did a nice job and held the returner to four yards. Nevertheless, the Titans picked up where they left off, with Fitzpatrick running the no huddle and a sprinkling of Chris Johnson, who finished the drive with a 7-yard score.
Luck and the Colts worked their way to the Titans’ 30-yard line, despite a drop by Darrius Heyward-Bey and a false start on RG Mike McGlynn. They would settle for a 48-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal and a 14-3 hole.
The Colts defense appeared to seize the momentum with a three and out, but the offense failed to capitalize, setting up a strange, penalty ridden march by the Titans offense, an 11 play, 69-yard drive in which Tennessee averaged a mere 3.3 yards per play of their own volition but gained 41 yards on three straight Colts penalties.
1st and 10 at the Titans 41: roughing the passer penalty on Robert Mathis for a helmet-to-helmet hit. There was a small amount of helmet contact, but the call was iffy. No big deal, this is the least penalized team in the league, right?
1st and 10 at the Colts 45: A great one-yard stop by DT Aubrayo Franklin was negated by an unnecessary roughness on CB Cassius Vaughn. This one looked like it could have been called on both players as they fought each other to the ground.
1st and 10 at the Colts 29 now: unnecessary roughness on OLB Erik Walden for ripping a guy’s helmet off and head butting the helmetless player while they argued. Walden was fortunate not to be ejected from the game.
Tennessee had to settle for a field goal, but only after the officials picked up a flag on what would’ve been the fourth foul on the drive (Jerrell Freeman came close to hitting Fitzpatrick out of bounds)
There they were again, down big in the second quarter, 17-3, while broadcaster Mike Mayock was breaking records for using the phrase “across his face.” The same old story about slow starts was in full force. Then, just before the half, the offense began to click, thanks in part to pass interference call against Jason McCourty, who was “covering” T.Y. Hilton (he was Hilton’s new backpack for a moment).
Indy would end the half by kicking a field goal, to turn what looked like a blowout into a two score game at 17-6.
The Colts got the ball to start the third quarter and efficiently, methodically marched 74 yards (Yes, David Reed returned the kick to the 26) for a touchdown. Andrew Luck was 5/5 for 42 yards, kicking it off with a 16-yard play action pass to Coby Fleener. Donald Brown ran it in from 6 yards out to make the score 17-13 Titans. Suddenly, we had a game.
As the offense found their rhythm, two things were happening simultaneously (three if you count Pep Hamilton’s hoodie, that thing was legit). First, Coby Fleener was quietly on his way to a career game (8 catches on 10 targets for 107 yards), gaining Andrew Luck’s trust in difficult situations, and taking some pressure off T.Y. Hilton in the process.
Second, the Colts coaches began riding the hot hand, so to speak, in the running game. So many times since the Trent Richardson trade, Pagano has sent Donald Brown in, watched him gain 7 yards or so, and then sent him back to the sideline. This time Brown, who was outgaining his talented teammate on the ground, stayed in and rewarded his coaches’ newfound faith in him with yardage and scores. 14 carries, 80 yards, 5.7 ypc, and 2 touchdowns to be exact.
After Brown’s scoring run, the Colts forced a fumble on the kick return, which was recovered by rookie running back Boom Herron. A quick 9-yard pass to Stanley Havili later, and the Colts were on the Tennessee 11-yard line, seemingly seconds after their last score.
On second down, Andrew Luck faked a handoff and immediately saw an unblocked defender to his right. He had just enough space to sell a monster pump fake, sending the Tennessee player airborne and tucking the ball before the guy ever landed. He looked as though he may be considering a slide but elected for evasive maneuvers to get around hard-hitting safety Michael Griffin for the go ahead score.
The Colts had gone from being down 17-6 to leading 20-17 before the Titans offense ever took the field in the third quarter. When Fitzpatrick and the Tennessee offense finally did take the field, a sack by Erik Walden (and subsequent ridiculous-looking dance) helped force a three and out.
The Colts would tack on another field goal; Vinatieri’s sixth from 50+ this year (surprisingly not the most of his career as he hit 7 from that far last season).
Tennessee answered back with a 38-yarder, closing the gap to 23-20. Ricky Jean Francois had a great stop against Johnson for a 2 yard loss on the drive, and Darius Butler managed another trademark shoestring tackle after Titans WR Kendall Wright to set up a third down.
Both offenses stalled out for a while until the Colts finally struck again. With 7:41 left in the game and a tenuous three point lead, Indy came out in the good old power run formation. It looked like another late game, running-into-a-brick-wall three and out in the making.
This time, however, the coaches called on Brown to help them close out the game. It was nothing against Richardson, just going with the player who was having a better night. With Tennessee stacking the box, Brown sliced his way through some tight spaces, gaining 43 yards and a second touchdown while Fleener picked up a crucial first down that led the Titans to begin using up their timeouts.
Tennessee raced 80 yards in 1:07 to pull to within a field goal again at 30-27. Pat Angerer, who once again led the team in tackles with 9, recovered the Titans’ onside kick attempt, effectively ending the game.
With 1:54 left and the Titans out of timeouts, it was time to line up in the best formation in football and do some kneel-downs.
From reeling to kneeling, Indianapolis will take home a three point win and a three game lead in the division. The Colts own the second half, and, at least for now, they once again rule the AFC South. 30-27 feels great, especially after the Dud Game on Sunday, and 7-3 feels even better. Ten days from now, they’ll take on Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals.
A few quick notes, in no particular order:
- Indy scored 20 unanswered points through second and third quarters.
- Luck was 12/21 (57%) in the first half and 11/15 (73%) in the second.
- Fleener’s 8 catch, 107 yard performance was a career high. He truly looked like a 6-6, athletic tight end, caught 80% of his targets despite absorbing thunderous hits over the middle, and he continues to assert himself as another reliable option for Luck.
- I wonder what David Reed showed in practice (he didn’t have a bad tame this time around) to warrant his being on the active roster over Da’Rick Rogers. My guess: familiarity. Da’Rick’s playing time is coming.
- The Colts often appeared to have a run formation and a pass formation, but they passed enough out of their power set to keep things rolling along nicely.
- DHB has caught 22 of 46 targets this season, a 48% catch rate. Time is running out, but he can still salvage this season by simply being reliable. Maybe he can do what T.Y. did over the offseason and sleep with a football in his hands.
- Is Pep a better coordinator when he wears a hoodie?
- Chris Johnson had 13 carries for 80 yards in the first half and 4 carries for 6 yards in the second. That’s a heck of a halftime adjustment, right there.
- Robert Mathis was shut out on the road again. Look for him to increase his sack total next week in Phoenix.
- There were 9 penalties in this game, 5 by the Colts.
- In second half, the Colts ran and stopped the run (while passing exceptionally well). Chuck and Pep are surely happy right now.
- Donald Brown made a move in the fourth quarter that looked like 1994 Barry Sanders (I know, he was more talented, but that step-back-and-go in traffic by Brown was vintage Barry).
- Seriously, Mike Mayock, while he made perfect sense, said some version of "across his/the face" enough times for a very short-lived drinking game.
- If ever a turnaround or comeback remains even a remote numerical possibility, don’t write this team off.