First Down, Fourth Down: TY Hilton instrumental in latest Colts win
Yet, the Colts knew that they needed more playmakers, especially with their new franchise QB arriving and veteran receiver Reggie Wayne staying put. Hilton, a burner out of Florida International, was just such a player.
He wasted little time acclimating himself to the NFL game, breaking off a 100-yard receiving performance in Week 3, then two more in Weeks 9 and 11. With Wayne performing at a Pro Bowl level, Hilton quickly developed into a very reliable target for Luck.
The Colts began taking advantage, almost immediately, of his game-breaking speed, too -- they had him returning punts and kickoffs from the get-go and have kept him as their top option there all season.
Sunday, in a 20-13 win over Buffalo, Hilton put his full game on display. Five minutes into the first quarter, he fielded a punt at his own 25, broke a tackle, then shimmied his way past the Bills' coverage units [si_launchNFLPopup video='91719bf48ba64a20b79ea46090c530a0']for a touchdown[/si_launchNFLPopup]. In the third quarter, as Indianapolis clung to a 13-6 lead, Hilton worked his way open in the end zone and hauled in a pass from Luck.
Luck's presence has changed the direction of the Colts' franchise after a dismal 2011. What the front office has done around Luck, however, has been almost as important -- and it's why Indianapolis has a firm grasp on a playoff spot through 12 weeks of football.
• First Down: Ray Rice.
What Ray Rice did with two minutes left in Baltimore's eventual OT win over San Diego is deliver a play that may become legendary, especially if the Ravens go on to clinch the AFC North and thrive in the playoffs.
With his team down three and running low on time, [si_launchNFLPopup video='d83ddb4d7ea6462f9f01ac76e59f4cf5']Rice took a check-down pass from Joe Flacco on 4th-and-29 and just started running[/si_launchNFLPopup]. He raced across midfield, broke to his left to avoid a trio of Chargers defenders, then dove for the first-down marker.
After a 10-minute review, Rice's effort was rewarded officially -- Baltimore's first down stood. Justin Tucker then kicked a field goal to send the game to overtime, and he hit another in the extra session to give the Ravens a stunning win.
• Fourth Down: New Orleans' offensive line.
The Saints are far from alone in their inability to corral the 49ers' pass rush. And losing third-string right tackle Bryce Harris to injury early Sunday, forcing them to utilize William Robinson, certainly did Drew Brees no favors.
New Orleans still needed a better game out of its O-line, which had allowed 16 sacks in 10 games before coughing up five to the 49ers. Brees was rushed all day, a problem that contributed to the pair of pick-6s he threw in the Saints' loss.
• First Down: Janoris Jenkins.
The red-flagged rookie out of North Alabama has not had quite the season the Rams were hoping for thus far, but he cranked it up a notch Sunday. Jenkins intercepted a pair of Ryan Lindley passes ([si_launchNFLPopup video='383ad08a93164ea7b9cfec0b13cde556']here[/si_launchNFLPopup] and [si_launchNFLPopup video='d7a9abd8ca79495a979cfecf18fa73b4']here[/si_launchNFLPopup]) and took them both back to the house, helping St. Louis hand Arizona a seventh consecutive loss, 31-17.
Jenkins had not picked off a pass since Week 1 against Detroit (and had been suspended a game for violating team rules along the way). But he came back in a big way Sunday.
• Fourth Down: Seattle's fourth-quarter defense.
The Seahawks rode their defense into the playoff race, but that unit let them down on Sunday. Seattle led Miami 14-7 with 12 minutes left, then proceeded to allow three consecutive scoring drives. The first two, which both resulted in touchdowns, extended 82 and 80 yards, respectively; the last one, which set up Dan Carpenter's game-winning kick, spanned 65 yards in about 90 seconds.
• First Down: BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Over his first four-plus seasons in the league, spanning 692 carries, Green-Ellis had one carry of more than 30 yards. Sunday, he ripped off two. The Cincinnati running back had a 48-yarder in the first quarter, then a 39-yarder earlier in the fourth. The bad news? He was tracked down at the Oakland 1 both times, though he followed up that first long run with a TD, and Cincinnati turned the second into a field goal.
Charlie Batch looked every bit an over-the-hill third-string quarterback in Pittsburgh's loss to Cleveland -- and the running backs, who turned in 49 total yards and four fumbles, weren't much better.
Part of the Steelers' problems in the run game, though, came because they were unable to generate any sort of downfield threat. Wallace, the team's No. 1 receiver, and Burress, signed this week to provide some veteran stability, combined for zero catches. Wallace did have a 9-yard grab wiped out by a penalty, and Burress was the target on a Batch pass to the end zone that resulted in a pass interference call that led to a touchdown.
Blame Batch and the Steelers' offensive line for Burress and Wallace's disappearing act, if you must. Batch did not get much help.
• First Down: Atlanta's run defense.
The Buccaneers' electric rookie running back still found the end zone twice, but he needed a pair of 1-yard carries to do so. Aside from getting across the goal line, Martin was rendered ineffective to the tune of 50 yards on 21 attempts -- a putrid 2.4 yards-per-carry average (though it was still better than Michael Turner's 1.3 mark). Tampa Bay's offense has evolved enough this season to be dangerous no matter what, as evidenced by its 23 points Sunday, but Martin's outing was his worst since Week 4.
• Fourth Down: Minnesota on the road.
The Vikings have climbed, surprisingly, into the postseason race by holding serve at home. But their failings away from the Metrodome might be their undoing.
Minnesota is 5-1 in front of its home crowd this season, but plunged to 1-4 in road games with a clunker of a loss in Chicago Sunday. It's a trend that has to turn around, fast -- the Vikings close the season with three of five on the road, with trips to Green Bay, St. Louis and Houston.
Even a 2-0 mark at home against Chicago and Green Bay would leave the now 6-5 Vikings in needs of at least one more road win, probably two. Right now, they don't look capable of delivering.
• First Down: Chad Henne.
Granted, it's only been two games, but Henne might be giving the Jacksonville brass something to think about this offseason. If nothing else, he's thrust himself into the conversation alongside Blaine Gabbert when the Jaguars discuss their QB situation for 2012.
After lighting up Houston for 354 yards and four touchdowns in Week 11, Henne helped break Jacksonville's seven-game losing streak with a 261-yard, two-TD effort Sunday against Tennessee. The most promising development of his unexpected production? Henne has helped Justin Blackmon (five catches, 62 yards, TD) raise his game.
• Fourth Down: Peyton Hillis' bank account. Remember when Hillis was a Madden cover star? It feels like ages ago now. Hillis fell out of favor in Cleveland last season, then signed a one-year deal with Kansas City with the hope of proving he was still a legitimate NFL back. He had all of 169 yards rushing prior to Sunday, however, then earned just two carries for five yards in a loss to Denver. He also threw an incomplete pass, a nice feather in his cap.