Let's not sell Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck short. He continues to be as calm as any rookie since forever. But the lasting clutch plays in a huge road win Sunday were by Colts running backs.
Yes, Colts running backs.
Here's how I'd rank them:
1. Vick Ballard's leaping game-winning touchdown in overtime. Ballard caught the swing screen pass from Luck and somehow had the perfect presence of mind, sense of distance and angle and belief in his own ability to fly. His twisting, hands-extended score over Ryan Mouton and Michael Griffin was the stuff of legends in beating the Tennessee Titans 19-13 on Sunday at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
2. Donald Brown's triumphant return. Brown, back from knee surgery for the first time, carried 14 times for 80 yards and had six carries for 39 yards on the Colts' game-winning drive. Seeing his acceleration had to be particularly encouraging to a team that appears to be finding a running game.
3. Delone Carter's back-to-back carries to tie the game. Carter's primary asset is his power, and he displayed that in converting a 4th-and-1 carry for seven yards to set up a 1st-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Carter leaped and extended the ball for the touchdown on the next play. In retrospect, it served as a nice prelude to the big Ballard leap to come.
The Colts (4-3) finished with 171 yards rushing, averaging five yards per carry, a rate they'll take anytime, anyplace. The strive for balance was evident in the stats, too. Luck completed 26 of 38 passes for 297 yards, one touchdown and one miscommunication interception in the end zone.
For much of the afternoon, it was a frustrating game for the Colts and those, like me, who were watching from home. They had long drives end with a field goal, a punt and a blocked field goal, much of the inability to finish being due to botched plays and penalties.
The defense put little-to-no pressure on Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who completed 22 of 29 passes for 236 yards and one touchdown. Indy caught a break when tight end Dwayne Allen was ruled down before a fumble deep in Colts territory with 18 seconds left.
But this is a bottom-line deal, with road sins covered by the road win.
Luck delivered a fourth-quarter game-tying drive, his first overtime-winning drive and the first road win of his still young career. His patience and resilience showed again, as he bounced back from his sixth road interception and another stalled drive to direct the 14-play, 80-yard game-tying drive.
The Colts won the toss in overtime and drove another 80 yards for the win. Luck completed only two passes on the drive, thanks to Brown's legs and the offensive line. But those passes were big: a 20-yard pass, under pressure, to Reggie Wayne on 3rd-and-8, and the game-winner to Ballard.
The Colts will play the resurgent and dangerous Miami Dolphins (4-3) at home next Sunday, a game with – believe it or not – playoff implications.
This marks the Colts' first time above .500 in the post-Peyton Manning era (and that's including last season as part of the post-Manning era).
CBS showed Colts interim coach Bruce Arians addressing the team in the locker room after the game.
“Great effort,” Arians told the players. “I promise you this: In overtime, we'll take the ball every time. You play to win. Let's have a great week of practice (for) a tough game with Miami coming up. We are something to be reckoned with. Start believing it. Everybody's got to believe it. Every snap, every practice, every meeting.”
The Colts then huddled with their standard break-it-down tribute to coach Chuck Pagano, who is home dealing with his fight with leukemia.
“1-2-3, Chuck!” they shouted.
The Colts needed this road win, no matter how ugly. It sets up unlimited possibilities ahead, especially if Ballard and the other running backs continue to fly.