In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts were the cute story nobody expected to go too far. One season after going 2-14, the Colts rejiggered with an excellent draft and snuck to an 11-5 record despite allowing 30 more points than they scored. They overcame head coach Chuck Pagano's leukemia diagnosis (as Pagano did; he's now in remission), and then fell to the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the playoffs, a seemingly inevitable end to a fairy tale season that had many pundits predicting regression as the sequel.
In the immortal words of Lee Corso, "Not so fast." Five games into that follow-up season, the Colts are 4-1 and at the top of the AFC South. They moved to that mark by knocking off the previously unbeaten Seattle Seahawks 34-28 in a game that made a clear statement that this franchise is built to win now and into the future.
Of course, it didn't look like that way early on. Seattle had a 12-0 lead late in the first quarter, but Andrew Luck hit speed receiver T.Y. Hilton for a 73-yard touchdown pass with 1:04 remaining, and the Luck-to-Hilton combo would prove to be productive throughout the day. Against Seattle's usually dominant secondary, Luck made killer throw after killer throw, showing off a combination of accuracy and velocity that rivals what you'll see from any other NFL quarterback. Hilton had five catches on six targets for 140 yards and two scores, while veteran Reggie Wayne used his knowledge of angles and field placement to slice and dice the Seahawks underneath for a six-catch, 65-yard performance that was more important than the stats would indicate.
Most impressive was the ability of Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to change the script in the second half to a more uptempo set of concepts, which really seemed to put the Seahawks defense on its heels. And then, in the fourth quarter, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll burned all of his timeouts early, allowing the Colts to possess the ball for 12:11 of the final 15. The Colts proved that they could beat a great defense quickly, and then close out a win by downshifting just as fast.
"[The Seahawks] were doing a great job," Luck said of the decision to take the offense up-tempo. "We got some plays going and got into a rhythm, and I'm proud of the guys for sticking with it. We were anemic -- we were awful to start the game, but it's a team effort. Defense kept us in it, and special teams -- we managed to do enough to win the ballgame. I feel so blessed to be a part of the Colts, where guys play for 60 minutes, and always play hard."
Seattle played hard as well, led by the efforts of Russell Wilson, their own outstanding second-year franchise quarterback. As he did in last week's overtime win over the Houston Texans, Wilson used his feet to keep drives alive when things looked lost. Both Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch totaled 102 yards on the ground, and through most of the game, Wilson looked to be every bit Luck's equal. In fact, their stats were amazingly similar with seven minutes left in the game -- Wilson had completed 15-of-27 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns, while Luck had completed 15-of-27 for 209 and the same number of scores. But the Colts scored the game's final 10 points on a three-yard Donald Brown touchdown run, a two-point conversion pass from Luck to Wayne, and a 49-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal. Meanwhile, Wilson threw a game-sealing pick on Seattle's final drive.
When great teams face off, the margin for error can be precisely that small. And the Colts proved on Sunday that they're worthy of that designation. Their success is no fluke.