INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts were eight-point home favorites on Sunday, but beating the Cincinnati Bengals proved to be much more problematic than anticipated.
Instead of a “cruise-control” game at Lucas Oil Stadium before enjoying a bye weekend off, the Colts rode a roller coaster. The offense picked up 22 yards on the first play, but then tight end Jack Doyle lost a fumble on a short pass.
Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals to a score, and the visitors kept scoring, while the Colts had a pair of three-and-out offensive possessions. Just like that, the Colts trailed 21-0.
Led by quarterback Philip Rivers’ three touchdown passes, the Colts didn’t panic and rallied to a 31-27 victory that marked the largest home comeback win in franchise history.
“No, I mean it’s a 60-minute game,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “There is going to be ebb and flow. Was it really bad to start out? Yeah, it was really bad to start out. Are we going to correct the mistakes? Do we want to stop them every time? Yes. Do we want to score every time? Absolutely.
“But at the end of the day, you have to try to do whatever it takes to win a game. Then when you do, even when it comes back and you win like this, you have to have the maturity to celebrate the win, to genuinely – it’s good to win a football game, get back on track. But like we say, even if we would have lost it, we’ll go in, we’ll make the corrections. We’re not going to ride the wave of results. We’re going to go back in and make corrections and try to become a better football team for the next game.”
The Colts were at a crossroads.
Down by three touchdowns and backed up at their own 13-yard line, they had a sizable play along the left sideline to receiver T.Y. Hilton, but it was ruled incomplete and upheld after Reich challenged the ruling.
The Colts got aggressive — they had to — and it worked.
Seventeen yards on a pass to Doyle. Fifteen yards to tight end Trey Burton. And then the big downfield shot, a 55-yard bomb down the right side to Marcus Johnson, who was on his way to a career-high 108 receiving yards.
Knocking on the door of Cincinnati’s end zone, Burton took the direct snap and plowed ahead for the 1-yard touchdown rush to give the Colts their first points, and a new sense of accomplishment.
Burton’s score was the first of three consecutive touchdown drives as the Colts trailed just 24-21 at halftime. The Colts had the momentum.
In the second half, the defense stepped up and clamped down, and the offense did enough to put the team ahead on a 14-yard TD pass to Doyle.
After allowing 230 yards of offense and 24 points in the first half, the Colts held the Bengals to just 168 yards and three points in the second half.
“What I love about this team is nobody panicked,” Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “Everybody stayed on track. Nobody was pointing fingers. Everybody was looking at themselves and how they can do better. It was all across the board. We just need to come out and everybody has to do their job and come out with more energy and play our style of football, and that’s what we did. We fought out of it and that’s what makes – I’m so proud of this team, the way we came back from a 21-point deficit. It’s awesome.”
Another big theme was the Colts defense making the plays and putting on the pressure that they hadn’t been early.
Cincinnati entered the game giving up a league-high 22 sacks, and the Colts finally put pressure on Burrow and got him to the ground twice after leaving him untouched early in the game.
The Colts secondary also began playing more aggressively, making a season-high 11 pass breakups. The game-clinching play came in the final minute as rookie safety Julian Blackmon intercepted Burrow at the Colts’ 19-yard line.
It’s the first time an NFL team has overcome a 21-point hole since 2016.
Playing efficiently on both sides of the ball was key, and the Colts were able to correct some issues they’d had offensively when they went 7-of-11 on third down (63.6%) and 4-of-4 in the red zone (100%), both season-best marks.
The Colts offense relied upon the right arm of their 38-year-old quarterback, Rivers, who rightfully had been taking his lumps in the media all week after a poor Week 5 performance in a 32-23 loss at Cleveland.
Rivers’ 371 passing yards were his most since 2018, when he was captaining the L.A. Chargers. He caught fire with 235 yards passing in the second quarter, the second-most in a quarter by any NFL quarterback this season.
Save for a bad interception early in the fourth quarter, it was arguably Rivers’ best performance with his new team, and the Colts needed it.
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(Jake Arthur has covered the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for nearly a decade and is a contributor for the team's official website, Colts.com. He’s on Twitter and Facebook @JakeArthurNFL, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)