For roughly the last two months, the Indianapolis Colts have looked anything but a playoff team. Blowout loses to the Cardinals, Rams, and Bengals had many inside and outside the Colts organization wondering if this Colts team would even look competitive once they got into the postseason.
After Sunday's dominating performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, the needle would seem to be pointing up for the Colts. After weeks of wandering through the post-Reggie Wayne desert in search of an identity, it looks like Indy has found itself again.
For all the times we bash Chuck Pagano's inept coaching (and if you somehow think this game absolves him of all the botched decisions and poor game preparation, think again), it's only fair to give him the credit he deserves when the team performs well. For the first time since Week 3, the Colts defense showed up and made a real difference.
No, I don't count Week 13 against the Titans, which was won 22-14. It's the Titans, and their quarterback was Ryan Fitzpatrick. You're supposed to dominate chumps like that on your home turf.
This game was on the road, in cold weather, and against a playoff caliber foe. No one gave the Colts a chance to win, save Nick Ragsdale (golf clap). All the advantages leaned KC's way going into the game, and, as I said on Twitter, it would take a mega Chiefs choke for the Colts to win in Arrowhead.
Thankfully, the Chiefs delivered.
But, the Chiefs imploding and being exposed for the frauds they are shouldn't take anything away from Pagano. Unlike the Rams, Bengals, and Cardinals games, the Colts looked ready to face the Chiefs on Sunday. They played disciplined. Their gameplan was sound. They executed well. In short, Pagano did his job.
The defense, which is Pagano's baby, was especially stout. After they weathered the initial Jamaal Charles storm clouds, the defense hunkered down and controlled the game. A big reason why was the play of Indy's corners, who smothered the Chiefs receivers all afternoon. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was sacked 4 times, going 15-29 for only 153 yards and 2 INTs. He never found any rhythm, and when Smith did have time to throw, his receivers were blanketed in blue.
Certainly, the return of Greg Toler helped. Toler had missed seven weeks recovering from a groin injury, and Sunday at KC was his first action since Indy's impressive win over the Broncos back on Week 7.
Speaking of the Broncos, the Colts victory handed them the AFC West. You're welcome, Denver fans.
Offensively, not enough can be written or said about the play of the offensive line. This unit, which has played like hot garbage much of the season, seems to have turned some sort of corner. Rookie guard Xavier Nixon was forced into a starting role Sunday with Joe Reitz (concussion) and Jeff Linkenbach (quad) out. Mike McGlynn slide back to right guard, and the woefully inconsistent Samson Satele returned to center.
The results: One sack allowed, 135 rushing yards, and Andrew Luck operating out of a clean pocket much of the afternoon. Nixon, in particular, played excellent football all day long.
23 of the Colts first 27 plays were run out of the shotgun, with a healthy mix of no huddle sprinkled in on 12 of those 27 plays. As we detailed last week (and will illustrate again this week in a later article), the Colts offense seems to work much more efficiently out of a spread, 3 wide receiver set with Luck in the shotgun. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has found a formula that works with the talent allotted to him.
Power running, no more.
Oh, and any thought of returning wide receivers Da'Rick Rogers or Griff Whalen to the practice squad should be met with spit and venom. These two are keepers. Starting caliber players. Whalen has been especially impressive in recent weeks.
The game was also a bit of a redemption story for Darrius Heyward-Bey, who, having been relegated to special teams as a gunner, played very well in the fourth quarter. As some in media joked after the game, anything Heyward-Bey can do that doesn't involve him catching anything is a plus for the Colts.
This was a giant win for Pagano and the Colts, who have looked more akin to the Texans (2-14) in recent weeks than the Chiefs (12-4). To walk into Arrowhead and wipe the floor with the team that resides there indicates that the Colts have rediscovered their identity.
This is an encouraging sign as the team gets ready to, hopefully, make a playoff run through the AFC.