Wow. What a way to cap off a holiday.
My son woke up early this morning, and I wasn’t having it. It’s okay, he’s nine months old, and waiting until a little after 7 am won’t even register on his radar but let’s just say that prime time games on Christmas Day are for the birds.
With that said, the Colts had every reason to mail it in against the Cardinals. Of the remaining regular-season games, this one was least important. This is an NFC opponent, on the road, on Christmas Day, with COVID-related absences mounting, with four of the five starting offensive linemen out, both starting safeties out, and Darius Leonard forced to watch away from the team.
I’d challenge anyone to draw up a scenario for a “trap game” that is more obvious than this one.
Yet, the Colts were able to set the tone early on the ground with Jonathan Taylor. They never dominated the game, if for no other reason than that huge pieces of the team weren’t even on the field, but they also never lost their composure or let the game slip away. Even when they trailed for a short time in the third quarter, the team maintained composure and executed to get the job done.
GRIT, BUTCHERS KNIVES, AND HEART
Colts fans who have been around long enough would be able to tell the younger crowd that something has been missing for a long time. Granted, the loss of Peyton Manning is a glaring event. The loss of Andrew Luck to early retirement is another. But arguably even bigger than those losses is that this team has too often lacked the tenacity it takes to get through a full NFL season and end up in a powerful position in the playoffs.
Something different is brewing with this group, even going back to the playoff loss in Buffalo with Philip Rivers under center a season ago. The team played with passion and while mistakes, sometimes mind-numbing and exhausting ones, kept them from finishing out games, they clearly played for each other and were not afraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone. At the time, the Bills were one of the hottest teams in the league with Josh Allen stepping into the spotlight with Patrick Mahomes as perhaps the future of the NFL at its most important position.
As was already discussed, this group had every excuse imaginable to lose this game. The venue, on the road, the timing on Christmas, the cloud hanging over the team’s head due to recent tragedy, a ridiculously large COVID-related list of absences for key players, and losing Eric Fisher and Chris Reed to injury at one point during the contest — Reed returned.
Instead, the depth of this roster held up on the road. George Odum broke up what would have otherwise been a huge reception late in the game as Kyler Murray tried to guide a comeback. Isaiah Rodgers has been one of the biggest stories of the secondary this season, as his big players also helped the Colts get a win. Kwity Paye and the defensive line put a lot of pressure on Murray in key moments, even if they didn’t get sacks. Filling in for Darius Leonard, E.J. Speed played as well as could be expected and nearly picked off a pass.
T.Y. Hilton made big plays in key moments. Carson Wentz even fired a touchdown pass that only a handful of signal-callers in the league could accurately make to find Dezmon Patmon in the back of the end zone to put the game out of reach. Yes, Wentz led the Colts to a key road win on Christmas Day and pushed Indianapolis forward in the driver’s seat to the playoffs.
The defense held the Cardinals to a field goal in their final offensive drive, forcing Arizona’s offense to settle for a field goal deep in the RedZone and desperately hope to recover an onside kick.
All phases - it’s starting to become a trend.
RIGHT STAFF, RIGHT LEADERSHIP
If there was ever a time to recognize and get behind the group of coaches and front office leaders at West 56th St., this is it. Do the Colts have a perfect roster at every position? Does the roster have the kind of depth that meets the high demands of a fan base that often has a video game mentality in terms of personnel expectations? Maybe not.
Here is what this team does have — it has the highest representation in this year’s Pro Bowl and six additional alternates. The leadership, the foundation that Chris Ballard wanted to build, is now in place. Key names on both sides of the football jump out: DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard, Kenny Moore on defense, and Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith, Jonathan Taylor, and Michael Pittman Jr. on offense.
Frank Reich has his team believing in what it can do. The team comes out ready to play and when adversity pops up, they don’t panic. This team has lost some heartbreakers and blown some big leads early in the season but imagine if the group hadn’t. This could easily be a 12-win team, if only they figured out how to close out games.
Look, the group still has its flaws and still has plenty of proving to do. They know their mission isn’t over and fans will not truly believe it until they see the same spark that has seen the last two weeks in a playoff run. Still, it’s hard not to like what the Colts are building. The NFL has been on notice for at least a week but tonight was another loud reminder. The Colts are not a team you want to on a football field.
No matter who you are.