INDIANAPOLIS – I wonder which member of the Indianapolis Colts feels the most weight lifted off his shoulders today.
Is it Jim Caldwell, the coach who avoids an 0-for-season with the Colts' 27-13 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium? Is it Dan Orlovsky, the quarterback who escapes the extreme indignity of leading two winless teams? Is it Jacob Lacey, the cornerback burned countless times and bounced out of the starting lineup, who made a play that supercharged the win?
Is it, perhaps, the fans who can finally wear their blue jerseys without “Shame” figuratively stitched across the back?
Today, I'm voting all of the above.
Nothing has really changed in the big picture as the Colts moved from 0-13 to 1-13. They're still the worst team in the NFL, still in line for the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft and still left with the dilemma of what to do about Peyton Manning. (He's throwing, yes, but doctors won't let him play this season. Thus sayeth Bill Polian, three days late.)
Yet winning soothes, no matter how late in a lost season it finally arrives.
The Colts are not going to join the 2008 Detroit Lions in 0-16 infamy and that's a win for everyone.
“How much does pride cost?” defensive end Robert Mathis said. “That was our battle cry. As a professional, you don't like to lose. As a competitor, you don't like to lose. What's it cost to you?”
Credit Caldwell for rallying the troops. Some coaches lose their teams even in so-so seasons, let alone disastrous ones. Caldwell still has a hold on his. He and defensive coordinator Mike Murphy turned the defense into an attacking force, swarming running back Chris Johnson (55 yards) and making big plays everywhere else.
Credit Orlovsky for error-free game management. His numbers were mild (11 of 17 for 82 yards). But he found Reggie Wayne for a score and he threw one heck of a block on Donald Brown's late 80-yard touchdown run that sealed the deal.
Orlovsky played for the 0-16 Lions. He avoids the worst repeat in history. So, too, does former Lion linebacker Ernie Sims, who led the Colts with 15 tackles.
“To finally get one, and in the aspect of a lot of certain situations, it feels great,” Orlovsky said.
Credit Lacey for his big interception-return touchdown that put the Colts up 17-6 in the third quarter. Lacey spent part of this season as the target of opposing quarterbacks. He was sometimes befuddled, often beaten. He lost playing time but didn't lose his drive. He took the Matt Hasselbeck slant pass away from Johnson through timing and willpower.
“This is what I do for a living; this is how I pay my bills,” Lacey said. “Anytime that's threatened to be taken away from you, you have to change your mindset and get back to what got you here.”
Credit Brown. He's been labeled as one of the Colts' draft busts, but he keeps making critics reconsider. He rushed 16 times for 161 yards Sunday, bringing his season totals to 115 carries for 586 yards. Most teams would be thrilled with his 5.1 yards per carry, even bloated a bit by an 80-yard run. He's one of the few Colts gaining stature this season.
There was something different about the Colts on Sunday. I wouldn't label it desperation, per se. I can go with determination.
From the moment Adam Vinatieri kicked a 47-yard field goal at the end of the first quarter – giving the Colts their first lead since Oct. 9 – there seemed to be a feeling that this game could be the streak breaker.
“It was an atmosphere today, we felt it,” Mathis said. “Our fans gave us love and we're glad we were able to give them a victory.”
The Colts hit Johnson hard and fast early, setting a tone for run defense that rarely fell out of tune. Johnson had one 35-yard run. He had 14 other carries for 20 yards.
“He's their bell cow,” Mathis said. “You get to him, he's their engine. You have to get in there and get him stopped. We get him stopped, we feel we can stop the rest of the team.”
The Colts' inspired play had been so long in the making – we've been waiting since September for a full game – it seemed to catch the Titans sleeping.
“I never would have expected us to come out and look like they were the team that was going to the playoffs and we were the team that was 0-13,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said.
This was an unexpected Colts treat all the way around. It doesn't change the big picture. But it lifts some weight off everyone's shoulders.
“We can leave with a smile on our face,” Lacey said.
I remember smiles.