This scenario was a far cry from where this team was three weeks ago, after they choked away yet another key game against an opponent (in this case, the Cowboys) they should have beaten. But, as we have found with these 2010 Colts, they seem to be at their best when their backs are against the wall. It seems that only when the pressure is truly ratcheted up that this team responds and plays the way they should.
This mindset was on display yesterday when, to open the game, the Colts surrendered a 99-yard touchdown on a kick return by Jacoby Ford. Down 7-0 early, the Colts offense stepped out onto the field, and promptly went three-and-out. The Colts punted, and already one got the sense early that this might not be Indy's game.
But, something happened when Oakland got the ball at their 29-yard line. This 'something' was on display last week, and for many of us, we had no idea where it came from or why it decided it finally show up now.
The Colts run defense made a stand, and as a result the Colts are one win away from their eighth AFC South title in nine years.
Following the Colts three-and-out to start the game, the Raiders got the ball on the Indy 29-yard line. Their first play was a two-yard run, stopped by defensive tackle Antonio Johnson, who was playing in place of injured Daniel Muir (more on this later). The second play was another short run. The third was an incomplete pass. Three-and-out. Oakland punts.
That series, right there, was probably the most critical in the ballgame.
The first series for Indy's defense set the tone for the entire day. They held Oakland to six three-and-outs and only 80 yards on the ground. This is an Oakland offense that averaged nearly 160 yards rushing a game coming in, and they were playing at home.
But it wasn't just the run defense that stepped up. For the second week in a row, the offensive line decided they were going to earn their paychecks. The Colts offense gouged the Raiders for 191 rushing yards, including 98 on 17 carries by former-Raiders back Dominic Rhodes. His re-signing, along with the return of Joseph Addai from injury, helped spark a Colts ground game that had looked awful in the beginning of December. With the recent loss of Austin Collie for the season, and the shelving of Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez, the emergence of the run game has been critical to Indy's success these last three games.
Other observations from the game:
- We've continued to note this, but Peyton Manning misses Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, Collie especially. While tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Blair White both had impressive TDs yesterday, it is obvious Peyton is not comfortable with them the way is is with Clark and Collie. Peyton's second INT was a poorly thrown ball to a double-covered Tamme. Don't know why he threw that, but it looked bad and ended bad. Peyton was 16-30 for 179 yards, 3 TDs, and 2 INTs. When your running game is killing the opponent for 191 yards at 4.9 a carry, there is no reason to go 16-30 with two picks. So far, without Austin Collie this season, Peyton has thrown 14 TDs and 14 INTs (four returned for touchdowns) With Collie, Manning has 17 TDs and only 3 INTs.
- Like all of you, I had a big smile on my face seeing Dom run for nearly 100 yards. Love to watch Dom run.
- With Joseph Addai back, and with Rhodes alternating with him, pass protection for Manning was noticeably better. Donald Brown, who started the game, did not return in the second half. We aren't sure if it was because of injury, or if he was just benched again.
- Another impressive game for Pierre Garcon. That back shoulder TD catch was text book. Four in a row. Keep it rolling, kid.
- Peyton running for the endzone late in the game is simply priceless. Sliding before going in was him being classy.
- So, when does Ken Hamlin get a chance to start at strong safety? Because, right now, the weak link in the defense is Aaron Francisco. Considering that Francisco is a much better special teams player than a starting safety, and since the Colts have surrendered two returns for TDs in two weeks, maybe the coaches should consider a change. Ya think?
- Another impressive game by Fili Moala. It's cool to see him finally start to develop. Also, it's worth noting that, once again, the return of Antonio Johnson to the starting DT spot results in the Colts shutting down another great rushing attack. Mookie should remain the starter. Daniel Muir has clearly regressed, and both Mookie and Fili offer the best tackle tandem Indy has, with a sprinkle of Ricardo Mathews.
- Speaking of Mookie, he had 5 tackles on the day.
- I've been critical of Robert Mathis all season, especially in big games on the road. Yesterday, he had 1.5 sacks and six tackles. Dude was ballin'.
- It's now fairly obvious that one of the reasons the run defense was so poor all season was Philip Wheeler. I don't care what people like Bill Polian, Jim Caldwell, and Jim Irsay have said publicly, Wheeler has not played well in '10. Yesterday, the guy who lost his job to Wheeler last season due to injury, Tyjuan Halger, was all over the field. Hagler had 9 tackles, and he is much better in run support than Wheeler. Factor in the high level of play from guys like Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, and the soon-to-be-returning Clint Session, and I don't think we shall see Wheeler starting again anytime soon. Just to give you an idea of just how much better Hagler is, he has started just two games and played in 12 this year. In that time, Hagler has 44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT, and 2 passes defended. Wheeler, meanwhile, has played in 16 games started in 6 of them. He has 39 tackles, 1 PD, no sacks, and no INTs.
- Pat McAfee continues to struggle. Punts are poor and his kickoffs are lacking. He simply has not been the same since he took a dip in the Broadripple canal and got pinched for it.
- Blocking on kick and punt returns is as bad as the o-line blocking for running backs three weeks ago.
- Gonna give some love to the secondary, especially Justin Tryon and Antoine Bethea. Both those guys know how to cover, and thank god for that. Jacob Lacey and Tryon were also good in run support. Both had a total of 11 tackles.
- Collin was talking about this in the comments, but as wonderful as the defense played, I agree they are having issues closing games. Up 31-19 with roughly two minutes left, the Raiders and their quarterback Jason Campbell were able to march down the field 80 yards in three minutes to score on a Zach Miller touchdown. Oakland didn't recover the onside kick, but it shouldn't have gotten to that point. The Colts should have shutdown the Raiders on that drive, but didn't. Campbell was in the shotgun for all twelve plays of the drive. Of those plays, only one was a run. This kind of situation is what the Colts are built to stop on defense, but in recent weeks they've had problems finishing.
Despite the weaknesses, the injuries, and all the other flaws associated with this Colts team, their performance these last three weeks has been impressive to watch. They are now one win away from the post-season, and that in-and-of-itself is a feat worth cheering when you consider where this team was just three weeks ago. Jim Caldwell and the coaching staff deserve some credit for getting this team in the position they are in now.
At 9-6, this win against the Raiders gives the Colts their ninth straight winning season, and their eleventh in twelve years. One more win, and they're printing playoff tickets for the ninth straight year.