They were in a slump of slow starts where they scored just 9 points in the last four first halves of games combined. Today, they scored 12 in the first half and held on in a close, hard-fought game to win 22-14.
It wasn't pretty today, but the Colts won the huge game and basically clinched the AFC South. Now, all the Colts need is one win in the remaining four games or one Titans loss in the remaining four games to officially clinch it. Normally this season, it has been Andrew Luck bailing his team out. Today, it was his defense and special teams bailing him out.
The veterans really stepped up. Adam Vinatieri hit 5 field goals and Robert Mathis came up with a huge strip sack at a crucial time. The defense had a few bad drives, but overall they were good and bailed out a Colts offense that at times couldn't do anything.
Credit the coaching staff, credit the special teams, credit the defense, and even credit the offense for a huge game-sealing drive near the end of the fourth quarter - this was a big effort in a big game and the Colts came away with a big win.
Let's take a look at some notes from the game:
- If we start with blame for the coaches in a loss, we should start with praise for them in a win, right? You can say what you want about the coaching in this game, but you absolutely have to give them credit for making changes and for being aggressive. Earlier this week, I laid out several things they could do to help with their slow starts. They already have done several of them, including: cutting David Reed, getting LaVon Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers some chances (although they still need more), benching Trent Richardson, getting the ball first (although that wasn't their decision this week as the Titans won the toss), and scoring first (they got out to a 6-0 lead). Also, they were more aggressive this week. They converted their first 4th down attempt of the season (now 1/7 on the year) and they weren't the same conservative coaching staff that we have been used to. There were still conservative moments, but overall this was a much more aggressive performance from the coaching staff and Chuck Pagano, and that is a good thing. Credit Pagano and his staff for a solid performance today and for doing the things that needed to be done to win.
- Some people were criticizing Pagano for not going for the two point conversion after the Colts scored a late touchdown (as the two point conversion would have put them up 9 - by two scores - and failing to get the conversion would still have put them up 7). While I probably would have gone for 2 (I'm a very aggressive play caller, especially on offense), there is NO WAY I am going to blame Pagano for not doing so. There are 32 head coaches in the NFL, and I bet 32 head coaches would have kicked the extra point there. There is no way I will blame Pagano for not going for the two point conversion try there. None.
- Pep Hamilton continues to disappoint some people. But, while he hasn't been the most impressive play caller, my friend Mike Chappell probably said it best:
For those bitching at #colts OC Pep Hamilton . . . just stop. Trying to make chicken salad out of chicken poo— Mike Chappell (@mchappell51) December 1, 2013
- The Colts benched Trent Richardson and gave Donald Brown the start today. And for much of the game, I think we saw how it most definitely isn't just Trent Richardson that is the problem. For much of the game, Brown was averaging less than 1 yard per carry. The offensive line was atrocious. But then at the end of the game, on the final drive, we saw what playing Brown can do for the offense that Richardson can't. On the touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, Brown rushed for 46 yards and a touchdown on 6 carries. He made things out of nothing and really just hit the hole faster and was more decisive than Richardson. Brown just puts his head down and runs, trying to get as much as he can. Richardson dances around trying to make a big play and instead does almost nothing. Many have noted that early in his career Brown had happy feet as well, and so that gives reason not to give up completely on Richardson. But right now, I think we saw two things very clearly today: 1) the offensive line is absolutely terrible and it was not just Trent Richardson's fault, and 2) right now, Donald Brown brings more to the table because of his decisiveness and quickness to hit the hole (what little hole there is).
- Andrew Luck wasn't terrible, but he wasn't good either. He misfired on several passes and had other passes batted down at the line. Several of the sacks (the Titans recorded 5 on him in the game) were on Luck because he held on to the ball too long on several plays. He wasn't the sole reason for their offensive struggles today, but he didn't help them out much, either. Although, he did rush 5 times for 42 yards (the second highest total of his career).
- Darrius Heyward-Bey had what was by far his worst drop of the season, and that's saying a lot. He was wide open down the field and Luck put it perfectly on the money, but the ball hit DHB in the chest and fell incomplete. It was terrible. Terrible. Awful. However you want to describe it, that's probably true. It was bad.
- The Colts had NO pass rush whatsoever for much of the game, but later on it showed up - better late than never! Robert Mathis got a huge strip sack in a huge situation and the Colts recovered, and the Colts got some other pressure after that too. Josh McNary - just promoted from the practice squad this week and a guy who I really liked in training camp - already looks like he's the Colts second best pass rusher. He had a very nice QB hurry today in limited action.
- Mathis is now at 15.5 sacks on the season and 107.0 for his career. With one more sack, he would notch franchise records in both categories (Dwight Freeney holds the franchise records with 16 in a single season and 107.5 in a career). He has four games left to do so.
- Cassius Vaughn, starting for the injured Greg Toler, came up big today, picking off 2 passes. Jerrell Freeman also picked off a pass and recovered the fumble off of Mathis' strip. The Titans don't turn it over much, so the Colts forcing four of them was huge.
- Chris Rainey looked like a significant improvement in the return game. He still didn't give the Colts great field position in the kick return game, but at least he looked much better doing so. And in punt returns, he looked good too. I'd expect him to continue in both roles as the season moves on.
- Getting Stanley Havili back is huge for this offense. He is a key part. And he's also a better receiver than most fullbacks you'll find. The Colts have been utilizing him in that area, and he has looked good there too.
- Jack Doyle was terrible today. And it brings up this question: if a blocking tight end can't block, what use are they to the team?
- The offensive line is terrible. Absolutely atrocious. Last week in the loss to the Cardinals I said that it was the worst the offensive line had looked this year, but I now think that this week's performance was worse. They were terrible.
- I haven't thought T.Y. Hilton has been that good since the second half of the game against the Texans. Perhaps we're seeing what we all thought already - he's not best in a number one wide receiver role. He hasn't been terrible and honestly has been their best receiver still, but I haven't been overly impressed.
- Pat McAfee punted well today, too. He got a lot of hang time on his punts and had some booming kicks, too.
- Finally, we get to the MVP of the game. Mr. Automatic. Mr. Clutch. Mr. Perfect. Call him whatever you want, but that was Adam Vinatieri today. He tied a franchise record with 5 field goals in a single game (last done by Vinatieri in the divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens in the 2006 playoffs). He was 5-for-5 today with makes from 47, 48, 45, 37, and 49 yards out. He also was 1-for-1 on extra points. He scored 16 points today, and in doing so went over 100 points on the season for the 16th time in his career, tying an NFL record; and also becoming just the second player in league history to top 800 career points with two different teams (doing so with both the Patriots and the Colts). He is a future Hall of Famer, and the Colts absolutely need to re-sign the free agent to be. Like, sign him now. He has had an incredible season and today was the best game of the year so far for him. He should be a lock to win the AFC Special Teams player of the week award.
- Player of the game: Adam Vinatieri, kicker (5/5 field goals - 4/4 from 45+ yards out - and 1/1 extra points)
- Next week the Colts travel to Cincinnati to play the Bengals in a game that could play a big role in deciding the AFC playoff seeding.