One of the teams in the Monday night matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers played their optimal brand of football -- run the ball, play with power, eliminate mistakes, keep the quarterback clean, and play strong, solid defense. All season long, that's been the Colts' modus operandi, but the Chargers turned that narrative on its ear by keeping the ball, grinding the Colts' defense down in all sorts of ways, and forcing their opponent to devise strategies it was not built to execute.
It was an atypical process for a Chargers team that had ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders' defensive metrics and had run the ball just 124 times to 190 passing attempts through their first five games. In their 19-9 win over Indy, San Diego ran the ball 37 times for 147 yards, and kept the ball for an amazing 38:31.
"It was a heck of a team win -- a tough team win," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game. "We weren't great in the red zone offensively, but our defense was awesome. Nick Novak was awesome down there. We got points and didn't turn the football over. We knew that if we didn't turn the ball over and we sustained drives -- we had some 12-, 14-, 16-play drives -- we'd give ourselves a chance to win."
That they did, with drives of 12, 17, 11, and 15 plays spanning the second, third, and fourth quarters. The Chargers scored in all four of those drives, and the Colts simply ran out of oxygen ... and time.
"We didn't go into the game saying, 'Let's play ball control.' we wanted to score as many points as we could," Rivers said. "We didn't score that many, but we did sustain drives. Keenan Allen stepped up big, they were doubling Gatesy [tight end Antonio Gates] a lot, Danny Woodhead stepped up big on some third downs, and our offensive line was great. If we can mix the run in, we've got a chance."
The Colts started with a 35-yard pass from Andrew Luck to Reggie Wayne off of a flea-flicker from running back Trent Richardson, but that was one of just three plays in which they gained more than 20 yards. Through most of the time he was on the field, Luck was under siege from the Chargers' multiple and opportunistic defensive line. Through San Diego sacked Luck just once, he could never consistently get his bearings in the pocket. Thus, he was forced to improvise too often when structure is what defines his offense at its best.
It didn't help that five different Colts targets -- Wayne, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Coby Fleener, Richardson, and T.Y. Hilton -- dropped perfectly catchable and uncontested passes. The drops by Fleener and Heyward-Bey negated what seemed to be sure touchdowns, and when Indy's running game could not provide a complementary challenge to San Diego's defense, there was nowhere left for Luck to go. Adam Vinatieri created the lone highlight for the Colts by kicking two field goals of 50 yards or more for the first time in his career. And when your kicker is the star, that's not a good sign.
Rivers didn't make many explosive plays either, but he made enough. Rookie receiver Keenan Allen enjoyed another exceptional performance with the game's only touchdown, and a total of 18 catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns in his last two starts.
"It's not too big for him," Rivers said of Allen. "That's an old cliché statement you say about young guys, but he came in [against] Philadelphia when Malcom [Floyd] went down. I was giving him reminders and doing all that throughout the game, and he was looking at me like, 'Are you telling me this right now? I know what to do.' And that told me that he's ready. He's done nothing but get better every week."
As have the Chargers. Mike McCoy's team had lost two of its three games in a fashion frequently seen under former head coach Norv Turner -- with coaching and on-feld execution blunders leading to fourth-quarter collapses. But not on this night. McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and Rivers did an absolutely masterful job of keeping the Colts' defense off-balance all night. Rivers mentioned the old school aspect of the offensive approach, but he came out running speed no-huddle to start the second half, and the Chargers dialed it down from there. San Diego did suffer from a few strange malfunctions on the drive that ended with a Nick Novak field goal at the two-minute warning -- they were calling timeouts and running out of bounds when the idea was to kill clock -- but Luck made that irrelevant when he threw a pick to cornerback Derek Cox with 1:17 remaining.
"I thought this was a turning point for our season," Rivers concluded. "That doesn't mean that it will take care of itself, but 2-4 would have been quite a bind to be in." Instead, the 3-3 Chargers have the Jacksonville Jaguars, and then a bye, to take stock and get ready for the second half of their season. As for the 4-2 Colts, this game provided more than enough to work on. They have the Broncos at home on Sunday night, when Peyton Manning will be honored for his contributions to the franchise, and then a bye.