INDIANAPOLIS – There's no catchy rallying cry for the hobbled, erratic, sometimes infuriating Indianapolis Colts entering their final regular-season stretch. Rather, it's simple: Make it through December.
Make it through December, make the playoffs and take your chances.
That's really all that's left for the Colts, who beat and/or outlasted the Tennessee Titans 22-14 on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. On the bright side, the Colts' record looks pretty good at 8-4, they're one game away from clinching the AFC South and their most valuable assets Andrew Luck and Robert Mathis remain as healthy as can be. On the other hand, the Colts don't look so hot overall.
“We're not exhaling,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said.
That's not to say the Colts are holding their breath. That's for their fans to do every time they have the ball on offense or are trying to hold off an opponent on defense. It's clear now that nothing is going to come easily for this team.
They needed five field goals from Adam Vinatieri, who is the Colts' best free-agent signing ever, and one final grind-it-out drive to beat the Titans. They needed some expected plays, such as a sack-and-strip by Mathis; some unexpected plays, such as two interceptions by backup defensive back Cassius Vaughn; and some running by Donald Brown in place of demoted Trent Richardson. They needed linebacker Jerrell Freeman to leap and pick off a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass in the last minute to seal it.
The days of Indianapolis bringing home aesthetically pleasing wins ended for the season with Reggie Wayne's knee surgery.
But the great thing about the playoffs is that some unexpected team always seems to make a Super Bowl run. If you picked the Baltimore Ravens last season, you were in a minute minority. If a team gets into the postseason, anything can happen. The Colts won't ever be overwhelming this season. They won't ever be dominating this season. But if they get in, anything goes.
Make it through December.
“I'll never complain about a win,” Luck said. “I don't think you'll ever hear anybody in that locker room complain about a win, especially against a good division opponent like Tennessee. What a great job by the defense. I think they were the leaders of the pack today. And credit to the O-line and backs for putting that final drive together and getting us seven.”
The Colts have problems. They're working to fix them with what they have available, including decisions by the coaches to start Brown over Richardson at running back, Jeff Linkenbach over Mike McGlynn at right guard and Darius Butler over Vaughn at cornerback. (The latter move seemed to inspire Vaughn.)
It seems likely the Colts will demote wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who had his worst dropped pass of the season, though hardly his first. They'll tinker with how to add some life to the offense, whether it's with new receiver Da'Rick Rogers or more Coby Fleener.
Their offense Sunday included Vinatieri field goals of 47, 48, 45, 37 and 49 yards. That's a big-time kicking day, any way you look at it.
“I'm sorry, but the Colts could do nothing against us,” Titans safety and Fort Wayne native Bernard Pollard said. “They couldn't move the ball. We found ways to put them in position to get points.”
If not for Vinatieri, the Colts wouldn't have won the game. “That's exactly why he's a Hall of Famer,” Pollard said.
The Colts were blown out, to put it mildly, by the Arizona Cardinals last week, and by the St. Louis Rams two weeks earlier. They needed a win, not only to put distance between themselves and the Titans, but to avoid panic.
“It was huge,” Luck said. “We had a very, very sour taste in our mouths and we knew the only remedy was to come out here and beat Tennessee. And, thankfully, we did, so good. We've still got a lot of mistakes to clean up. We've still got a lot of things we need to improve on, but to grind out games, to win these types of games, is a positive sign.”
While there were some highlights on defense, the offense outside of Vinatieri was effective only on that final, 6-minute, 92-yard drive. It was a drive that included only two passes – to fullback Stanley Havili and tight end Coby Fleener – but a couple of big Luck runs and some Brown power.
“Execution, grit, toughness, all that stuff plays a hand in it,” Pagano said. “Hats off to our offensive line and tight ends and Stanley Havili, our backs, jumbo guys coming in and grinding that thing out, running that time off the clock and scoring that touchdown.”
The Colts have two strong teams left on the schedule, both on the road: Cincinnati next week and Kansas City on Dec. 22. They have two mediocre teams at home: Houston on Dec.15 and Jacksonville on Dec. 29. If they split, they'll finish 10-6 with an AFC South title. That's a tangible goal.
“The division is not sewn up,” Pagano said. “We've still got a lot of work to do as a football team in all three phases.”
The real goal is survival.
Make it through December.