As writers, we often look for moments in time that we deem as "turning points." As football writers, we obsess over finding these moments.
Turning points in a season.
More often than not, we exaggerate these moments, and we do so in order to, as NY Times columnist Ross Douthat put it, achieve an artificial order on the messiness of reality. Douthat was referring to the reality of politics in his article, but the same can apply to the sports world.
We search for that moment when a player, a team, and/or a franchise makes a change that alters the course of their season for good or ill.
For the 2013 Indianapolis Colts, that turning point was, most likely, the second half of their 42-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) back on December 8th. Since that game, which saw head coach Chuck Pagano's defense gets gashed, mauled, and blasted all over Paul Brown Stadium, the Colts have only given up an average of 6.6 points per game.
Granted, their opponents since the Cincy game have been the Texans (2-14), the Chiefs (11-5), and the Jaguars (4-12), but still, these last three games have been the best stretch this defense has played all season.
I've made no secret about my dislike for Pagano's coaching in 2013. He's a bit of a meat head when it comes to game management, adjustments, and understanding what it takes to win in the modern NFL. Pagano's also been maddeningly inconsistent at doing the most basic part of the job he is handsomely paid to perform, and that's getting the team ready to play week-to-week. Pagano himself has acknowledged this inconsistency publicly.
However, despite his many faults as a coach, Pagano deserves credit for piecing together three critical wins at a time when the season could have fallen apart.
After stating in early December that he wanted the Colts to start playing tough, "lunch pail" football to close out the regular season, his team proceeded to get its ass handed to them thoroughly by the Bengals. Pagano, who so insanely emphasizes running the ball and stopping the run in a league where both don't equate to winning, was made to look foolish. It was hard to listen to him during press conferences and not think, this guy has no clue. But, since that game, Pagano and his offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, have done what many other coaches often fail to do when seasons appear to spiral out of control.
They swallowed their pride, changed the team in several key ways, and coached their butts off.
Since the second half of the Cincy game, which saw quarterback Andrew Luck and wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers come to life, the Colts offense has become an efficient, entertaining unit to watch. In three games, Luck has completed 66% of his passes for 703 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 INT, and 3 sacks.
Yes, that's right. Just three sacks! If that doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment for you, consider that, prior to Week 14 against the Bengals, Luck had been sacked 29 times in just 13 games.
Entering the Cincy game, Luck was on pace to be sacked roughly 40 times in 2013, close to the 42 sacks he absorbed in 2012 and likely drawing the wrath of general manager Ryan Grigson and team owner Jim Irsay down on both Pagano's and Hamilton's heads. Luck finished the regular season sacked 32 times despite Hamilton needing to juggle the interior of his talent-depleted offensive line for the 8th time this past Sunday.
Gone is the "power running team" that Pagano so very much wanted the Colts to be in 2013. Replacing it is a short yardage passing attack designed to get the football out of Luck's hands quickly and into his playmakers' mitts. T.Y. Hilton's play on Sunday against the Jaguars was a perfect example of how this offense has worked so effectively recently. His 11 catches for 155 yards on Sunday were something special, and so many of his yards came after 5-yard crossing routes, which were transformed into 30-yard catch-and-runs against Jacksonville's porous secondary.
On defense, placing inside linebacker Pat Angerer on IR - a move that now appears more as a glorified benching rather than something motivated by injury and player health - has made a difference. Linebackers like Josh McNary and Kelvin Sheppard have stabilized the interior of the defense, along with Jerrell Freeman, who is playing at a level so high NASA has designated it a second moon.
Back on December 8th, this Colts team was dealing with its third blowout loss in six weeks. They looked beaten and lost, especially on defense, which is Pagano's specialty. It's why he's the head coach. Since then, this Colts team has transformed into a contender again.
It's as if 2013 was two seasons in one. The first half of the year, which featured the amazing play of wide receiver Reggie Wayne, was a march of triumph through some of the best teams in the NFL. Wins over the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos made everyone think this Colts team was a juggernaut. Then, Wayne was lost for the season. The defense began to implode, and more and more of the pressure to win mounted on the shoulders of Andrew Luck, who needed comeback victories over Houston in Week 9 and Tennessee in Week 11 to keep this team from sinking.
Then, the Cincy game happened. A loss, yes, but since then a light has come on for this team. Their 30-10 win over the Jaguars to close out the regular season read as an acknowledgement that, yes, this team has indeed found itself again.
We silly writers make too much of turning points, but I don't think that Week 14 loss to the Bengals was insignificant. Maybe, with how this flawed team is wired mentally, they needed that loss to happen in that specific way in order for everyone - coaches included - to finally get it.
As fans, we were given another 11-5 season and the team's return to the top of the AFC South. Not bad. Not too bad at all. The Colts next opponent is the Chiefs, a rematch of Week 16. Only this time, the game is a playoff game at Indianapolis.
Back in August , Jim Irsay said he wanted to model the 2013 Colts after the 2004 New England Patriots, a team that played stifling defense, ran the football, and had a quarterback who could play well under pressure in critical moments. Right now, the Colts look like such a team. Hopefully, they can continue to appear as such during a playoff run through the AFC.