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COLUMN

Colts take care of business the hard way at Tennessee

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For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Three-game lead in AFC South covers multitude of issues

Friday, November 15, 2013 - 4:37 am

I doubt you can make a Super Bowl relying on Donald Brown and Coby Fleener, but you can win in Tennessee, and that's all that matters for now.

The Indianapolis Colts spotted the Tennessee Titans two touchdowns – so what else is new? – but came back to take a 30-27 win and a three-game lead in the AFC South on Thursday night at LP Field in Nashville. Plodding start, slow-building middle, furious finish – that's the Colts' modus operandi, to borrow Andrew Luck's words, and it doesn't seem like it's going to change.

The Colts have problems involving suspect defensive pass coverage on crossing routes, a distinct shortage of wide receivers versed in the ancient art of catching a football and the aftermath of trading for a running back who never seems to run far enough. But a 7-3 record is a 7-3 record and, 10 games in, it's hard to ask for more.

One thing seems clear in the post-Reggie Wayne injury phase: The Colts will be living in the moment the rest of the season.

This is a team that can't find a way to get ahead early, can't find a way to create separation from mediocre teams and needs big plays and late drives to harness wins. There's no way to look down the road past the next game, the next quarter or even the next snap.

You want positives? I'd point to these Thursday: resilience (a long-standing trait), Brown and Fleener. You can throw Luck in there, too. You can almost always throw Luck in there.

It's probably overstated, especially by coach Chuck Pagano and his staff but also by NFL Network analysts and former players, to praise the resilience of these Colts players. There's truth in there. They were embarrassed in a 30-point home loss to the St. Louis Rams last week, much as they had been shamed in falling way behind before coming back for a win at Houston a week earlier. It looked like more of the same at Tennessee when the Titans and Chris Johnson burst out to a 14-0 lead.

But the Colts' resilience is undeniable. Granted, Tennessee's a mediocre team with a backup quarterback, but I'm not grading resilience on a curve. There was a point in the first half – around the time the Colts gave up half the field in penalties and Erik Walden head-butted a helmet-less Titan – when it looked like composure had hopped an early flight back to Indianapolis.

The Colts chipped away. Two Adam Vinatieri field goals provided some life and a 17-6 halftime deficit that could have certainly been worse.

Brown capped off a third-quarter opening drive with a power-running touchdown off a pitch to cut the Titans lead to 17-13. Since acquiring Trent Richardson in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, the Colts offensive coaches have tried not to notice that Brown has been the more effective back. Richardson can pass block better, but that's about it. Brown hits seams quicker, has more burst and shows incredible speed in the open field.

Brown finished with 14 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns. When the Colts needed a late drive to eat the clock and seal a win, it was Brown, not Richardson who handled the bulk of the running. It's taken awhile, and a mountain of evidence, to tilt the higher percentage of carries to Brown.

Richardson was more effective as a pass receiver out of the backfield, catching five passes Thursday; that could be his niche, at least this season. But it was time for Brown to get more chances, and he's taking advantage of them.

As for Fleener, he had the best game of his career with eight catches for 107 yards. The Colts have had their share of receivers with hands of stone this season. (That finally got Darrius Heyward-Bey benched late Thursday.) Fleener had bouts of struggling to catch the ball in the preseason and a notable drop deep at San Diego.

But now he has joined T.Y. Hilton as Luck's most reliable receivers. Fleener's confidence appears to be growing and his role must continue to expand, too, if the Colts are to keep their offense moving forward.

Luck finished 23 of 36 passing for 232 yards and had a tremendous touchdown run when he faked a pass to freeze a defender in midair, then sprinted into the end zone. He's truly a quarterback who doesn't care – at least not in a way that can be discerned publicly – about any statistics other than wins and losses.

Luck is most likely to savor the fact the Colts have won 16 straight games in which they led in the fourth quarter and are now 14-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points. He has helped the Colts win games over the last two years when they trailed by 18 (vs. Green Bay last season, vs. Houston this season), 14 (vs. Titans on Thursday) and 12 twice (at Detroit last season, vs. Seattle this season).

Indianapolis' next game will be Nov. 24 at Arizona, coached by former Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

They'll have time to dwell on the still-exasperating tendency for low production in first halves of games. They'll have time to stage further competition to see whether anyone can join Hilton as a reliable wide receiver. They'll be able to draw up more plays for Brown and Fleener.

They'll be able to get cornerback Greg Toler healthy, and maybe that ends the Colts' vulnerability in the secondary.

Or maybe it'll forever be a game-by-game discovery to see what this team does next. Actually, scratch the "maybe" out of that previous sentence.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.