The Indianapolis Colts came within a missed sack by a seven-time Pro Bowl pass rusher and a made 51-yard field goal in the final minute from suffering an embarrassing home loss on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Call it whatever you want, playing down to the competition, not being properly prepared, failing to take the offensively inept Denver Broncos (2-6) seriously or an inability to handle their own recent success, the Colts were extremely fortunate to escape 15-13 and improve their AFC South Division-leading standing to 5-2 with a third consecutive victory.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri delivered the deciding points on a 51-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining. Each of the Colts’ seven games have been decided by one score. They're the first since the 1970 NFL merger to have that distinction.
But the Colts wouldn’t have been in that position had Vinatieri not yanked an extra point wide left in the third quarter. He also whiffed badly to the right on a 45-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter.
Much like his inconsistent team, it was difficult to know what to expect from the Colts. That started with second-year head coach Frank Reich, whose inexplicable cautious playcalling throughout the game was cause for head scratching. Even at the end, Reich opted to run the ball twice and settle for a long field goal attempt from his shaky kicker.
Vinatieri, who had also made field goals from 55 and 45 yards, drilled the final kick like a future Hall of Famer.
But the Colts wouldn’t have been in position to win if Broncos pass rusher Von Miller sacked quarterback Jacoby Brissett for a safety at the beginning of the drive. He had Brissett on the goal line, but credit the Colts quarterback for somehow being able to shake off one of the NFL’s best pass rushers and throw a 35-yard strike to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.
“I was just like, ‘I’m not going down,’” Brissett said.
Don’t count on that happening too often. Talk about living on the edge.
Ignored in the first half with only one targeted pass, Hilton came up clutch when needed most. Why the Colts didn’t throw to him more, again, is a head scratcher. He had just two catches for 54 yards.
The Colts offense went nowhere for most of the first half as Denver dominated time of possession. The Colts defense stiffened to allow just two field goals in the first 30 minutes, but that was as much a testament to Denver having its own offensive issues as solid defensive play.
It seemed as if Reich was determined to rely on the Colts’ solid rushing attack, but Denver’s defense effectively stacked the box early and made it clear that ground-and-pound wasn’t going to work. When the Houston Texans did that to the Colts last Sunday, Brissett responded with a career game that included four TD passes in being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the first time.
But this day, he didn’t start throwing the ball down the field until his team was trailing by double digits. He finished 15-of-25 passing for 202 yards and was sacked four times. That usually reliable rushing attack gained 127 yards on 31 attempts, a 4.1-yard average that almost wasn’t enough.
“That was the best defense we’ve faced this year,” Brissett said.
The Colts defense came up with three sacks, but continually compounded situations with their own issues, most notably a penchant for inducing referees to throw their flags.
The Colts entered as one of the league’s least-penalized teams, but were flagged 10 times for 103 yards. Rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin had an awful day in man-to-man coverage as the second-round pick was picked on time and time again and flagged five times, four of those accepted for either defensive holding or pass interference.
Ya-Sin’s fourth penalty, a legitimate pass-interference infraction, allowed the Broncos to score on a 4-yard Royce Freeman rush to make it 13-3 in the third quarter.
That’s when Brissett threw the ball down he field, which translated to a Vinatieri 45-yard field goal on the ensuing drive.
The Colts seemed to have the momentum against the six-point underdogs as the defense forced a three-and-out possession, then the offense drove 68 yards in six plays with running back Marlon Mack scoring on a 10-yard rush.
But Vinatieri missed badly on the extra point. The Broncos still led 13-12.
Reich said he told Vinatieri then, “Shake if off. You’re going to win this game for us.”
Lest anyone forget, Vinatieri’s future seemed in doubt after he missed one field goal and two extra points in the Colts’ 30-23 opening overtime loss at the Los Angeles Chargers. The NFL’s oldest player at 46 had only experienced one other three-miss game in his 24-year career. Then he missed a field goal and an extra point in a Week 2 road win at Tennessee.
Whatever the reason for Reich’s conservatism and unflinching faith in his kicker, the game came down to those fateful sequences in the final minutes. The Broncos could have gained a first down late and not given the Colts the ball back but instead played it conservative and were stuffed on a third-down run up the gut to force a punt.
That understandably irked Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco.
“I mean, come on,” Flacco said. “I look at it like, ‘We’re now a 2-6 football team and we’re like afraid to go for it in a two-minute drill, you know? Like, who cares if you give the ball back to the guys with 1:40 left? They obviously got the field goal anyways. Once again, we’re a 2-6 football team and it feels like we’re kind of afraid to lose the game.
“It’s third and five at the end of the game, who cares if they have a timeout there at the end or not? Getting in field-goal range isn’t that tough. You’re just putting your defense in these bad situations and I just felt like, ‘What do we have to lose? Why can’t we be aggressive in those situations?’ That’s kind of how I feel about a lot of the game today.”
Miller could have come with that game-clinching sack, but didn’t. Vinatieri could have closed such a sloppy game with the second three-miss game of this season, but he didn’t.
By any reasonable standard of summation, the Colts were fortunate to win. To be more succinct, they were lucky.