Sunday afternoon I was talking to my buddy before the game. We had both heard the Jerrard Powers quote that it was a ‘must win.' We had both seen all the prognostications about how the Texans had finally arrived and were ready to take over the division. And we had both read all the articles about how the injuries were too much to overcome. Like everyone else, we were well aware at what was at stake. Neither of us could think of the last time a regular season game had meant so much so early. But when we talked about it we both shared a quiet confidence.
His explanation summed it up perfectly. The run-up to Monday night's game he said was like being in school and having a major exam looming.
"If it were Economics or Math or Chemistry I would be royally screwed. But its not. Its American history. No matter how big or scary an exam this might be, I know my history. Am I worried about the game? Of course. I am nervous just like I would be nervous about any important exam. It's a huge game. I am also worried in part because just like a big test, you can't go anywhere without hearing about it. All the talk and speculation weighs on you. But at the same time you have that weird calm feeling because once the game starts and we settle in we are going to be fine. It's like when the day of the test finally arrives and you walk in, sit down, open the book and... let out a huge sigh of relief once you realize that yeah, you've got this! It's the subject you are good in. You read a lot and take good notes so no matter what obstacles or tricks the teacher tries to throw you, you will be all right. You got it."
Monday night's matchup was the first midterm - the big test. Somehow with the odds stacked against us and a good opponent in town, the Colts, like they always do, aced it.
Like prepping for a test, the Colts were prepared with those late night study sessions certainly paying off. Unlike the Cowboys or Vikings, the Colts go about their business in a serious manner. They never show up to class cocky, never clown around and never sleep through lectures and think they can turn it on at the end and pass. Nope, the Colts study. They listen to their coaches, they put in the long hours on the practice field and extra time on the walk throughs and they grind it out. That is why the Colts win and that is why they are so respected. The Monday Night crew made it a point to say they had never before seen such precision and attention to detail as they did from Peyton during the Saturday morning final walkthrough.
Such is the story of Peyton Manning and the Colts. Even though we fans may worry and fret each and every week, somehow deep down we know that the Colts will do well. Maybe not every week (pretty close though) and maybe not on both sides of the ball, but when the Colts need a win, they get it. The Colts passed their midterm, one of more important games in recent regular season history, like they always have, by relying on their stars to come out at night. And boy did they ever. A night after Halloween, Freeney was a terror for Matt Schaub. Once the Colts jumped out to the early lead (in large part due to the defense) Arian Foster's role was negated, allowing Freeney and Mathis to run wild and combine for almost a dozen hurries and 2 sacks. Offensively, the Colts kept the horses in the stables, instead sending receivers underneath helping Peyton Manning to methodically pick apart the defense. Houston provided a stiff test mixing in several exotic coverages sending blitzers up the middle on stunts and off the edge on overloads. They got pressure and hurried Manning. But in the end, Peyton was too smart. No matter what the Texans seemed to throw at him, Peyton knew what to expect.
On multiple occasions ESPN announcer Jon Gruden proclaimed his admiration for just how well Peyton was prepared, commentating about how Manning would eliminate 7 of the 10 possible defensive sets the Texans might have considered pre-snap (FYI a textbook example for solving a real multiple-choice test). Meanwhile, Schaub never had the time nor could he engineer the usual rhythm of the high-powered Houston offense. Credit the defense, which besides another bout of poorly taken angles and easy missed tackles, played with heart and desire. Down to just two starters in the secondary the Colts relied on the pressure of Freeney and Mathis to assist their coverage. Hayden's route recognition on his interception was critical, but Schaub's poor decision and rushed throw were Freeney and Mathis' doing.
When it was all said and done pride was the theme of the night, and deservedly so. Peyton said he was proud. So too did Jim Cadwell and they had every right to be. The Colts played tough and failed to make excuses out of all the injuries. In the waning minutes of the 4th quarter, Jon Gruden was hard on the Colts saying they couldn't close out games inside 4 minutes. Well they did. They finished off the Texans without their best tight end and their three top running backs (That's right -all three of the Colts opening day running backs were out). Try finding another team that could win as easily facing those odds. When the offensive came off late in the game after a poor three-and-out, the defense answered the call in spectacular fashion with Freeney forcing another trademark fumble.
Still, as satisfying as this win was, the Colts have plenty of issues to work out. The area of most concern...sigh.... continues to be their offensive line. Unlike weeks past, the line held up fairly well against a fierce barrage of blitzes. As surprising as it may seem, neither pass protection nor run blocking was the issue. In fact both were solid. Rather, the problem was that the offensive line couldn't refrain from jumping the snap count resulting in what seemed like endless drive killing plays (or near drive killing plays save for Peyton's brilliance). With a team decimated by injuries trying to incorporate new players on a weekly basis, you can't have that. Especially when the unit itself has been relatively healthy and stable (relative has a new meaning for Colts fans).
The inability to understand the communicated plays along with a possible broken headset in the first half forced the Colts to slow the pace and reign in the horses, which really was a reason the Texans hung around so long. Such mental mistakes changed the flow of the game and are something that going forward the Colts simply can ill afford. It's like getting every step right on a complex calculus problem except somewhere you added 2 + 2 and got 5. Stupid mistakes can throw everything off.
Other than the miscommunications and 9 sloppy false starts and holding calls, the Colts, especially the defense, were great. Something about having their backs against the wall unleashes the beast from within. While Peyton had to pull up on the reigns, Larry Coyer let his players loose resulting in 2 huge Dwight Freeney quarterback take-downs and an absolutely thunderous hit on Schaub by Clint Session, a guy who played with passion, heart and a relentless determination all night. The secondary allowed a few big plays and Foster ran for another 100+ yards, but considering that the unit was without 2 of its top 3 corners and the best safety in football - not to mention that they were facing a high powered offense - the effort was very impressive and definitely made the grade.
Offensively, the Colts labored at times because of the confusion but still moved the ball well overall. Gonzalez earned his marks and some respect from Peyton Manning by making a spectacular 34-yard lunging grab to set up another Vinatieri field goal (who by the way is becoming more and more automatic). Garcon and Wayne both had quite but productive nights and Mike Hart ran the ball with conviction and toughness.
On the whole, the Colts have a lot to be proud of. After a stressful bye week they can exhale. They are more than justified in celebrating the high marks, but cant get too carried away (especially you McAfee) because just like college there is always another test around the corner and that end of semester final exam in New England is quickly approaching. Something tells me that the Colts will be ready.