The Washington Times-Herald

November 25, 2012

Colts in thick of playoff race

Tom James
Tribune-Star coorespondent

INDIANAPOLIS —

Don't look now, but the upstart Indianapolis Colts have jumped to the front of class when it comes to securing one of the two available wild-card berths in the upcoming AFC playoffs.
 
Coupled with the Pittsburgh Steelers' 20-14 loss at Cleveland Sunday, the Colts' 20-13 home-field win over Buffalo gives the team a 7-4 record and the inside track at the fifth seed in the post-season standings heading into next week's road game with Detroit.
 
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, had eight turnovers and were without its two top quarterbacks in losing to the Browns. The Steelers are now tied with surging Cincinnati for the second wild-card spot, both with 6-5 records.
 
While interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians continues to stress taking each game as they come, coming away with a win over Buffalo was huge for a Colts' team with playoff aspirations.
 
“You know in the beginning when this thing was put together, [coach] Chuck [Pagano] built everything on team. I think that was a team victory right there," Arians said Sunday. 
 
"I couldn’t be prouder of the football team because Chuck was [at the game] and the goal was to make him smile when he left. And I’m sure he’s up there [in team owner Jim Irsay's stadium suite] smiling.”
 
In order to get into its current position, though, Indianapolis had to battle through some rough patches en route to the win over the Bills. With the Colts' offense was slow to get untracked, it was left up to the defense and -- yes -- the special teams unit to come up with some big plays.
 
They certainly didn't disappoint. Rookie wide receiver T.Y. Hilton's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the first quarter had put Indianapolis out in front early, giving the Colts a lead that they would never relinquish.
 
Two Adam Vinatieri field goals (from 25 and 19 yards out), along with an 8-yard pass from rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to Hilton late in the third quarter, provided all the scoring Indianapolis would need. But Buffalo, who had come into the game needing a win in order to boost their post-season hopes, certainly made things interesting.
 
The Bills defense sacked Luck four times, three by Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams and one by defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and intercepted him once (backup cornerback Justin Rogers). Luck also looked out of rhythm all afternoon, completing 20-of-37 passes for 240 yards and a TD. He misfired to a couple wide open receivers early in the game and then struggled at times to get the ball down field due to the constant pass rush.
 
Still, the Colts made plays when necessary in other areas. Hilton's punt return got Indianapolis off to a good start. The defense, led by inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, bent often but limited Buffalo to just one touchdown and a pair of field goals by Rian Lindell (33 and 31 yards).
 
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's 1-yard toss to backup tight end Lee Smith with 11:30 remaining in the game had narrowed the margin to 20-13. When it looked like the Bills were on their way to tie the game in the fourth quarter, safety Tom Zbikowski intercepted Fitzpatrick and returned it 20 yards before fumbling the ball back to Buffalo.
 
Still, the Indianapolis defense made plays. With 4:31 left in the game, the Colts pass rush forced Fitzpatrick out of the pocket on first down and a pickup of six yards. Freeman, who ended the game with 16 total tackles, dropped Bills running back C.J. Spiller for a 4-yard loss on second down.
 
A third-down pass from Fitzpatrick to Spiller fell incomplete. Buffalo punter Shawn Powell's booted the ball away and pinned Indianapolis back at its own 5-yard line. The Bills, though, never saw the ball again.
 
The Colts controlled the final 3:22 of the game, picking up a big first down with an 11-yard run on second down. A 14-yard pass from Luck to wide receiver Reggie Wayne, also coming on second down, gave Indianapolis another first down and another chance to control the clock.
 
And, finally on third-and-10 with 1:48 left in the game, Luck's pass to Wayne was incomplete but the Bills were called for pass interference on the play. Game over.
 
Wayne ended the game with eight catches for 102 yards, which was impressive enough. But he also used his veteran skills as a receiver to draw a pair of crucial pass interference penalties, enabling the Colts to keep drives alive.
 
"All phases, our special teams, showed up huge. I thought they won the game for us. Not only with the return for the touchdown and the field position they created but how well they covered. Those are two great [kick] returners [Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin and Brad Smith]. We asked [punter] Pat [McAfee] to have his best game ever as a kicker and he really contributed. He kicked the ball great," Arians said afterward.
 
"They didn’t give them anything on defense, hung in there when they had to. Offensively, we were able to put a drive together and finish one there at the end of the third quarter, which I thought was a solid drive. At the end of the game, to be able to ice it out running and throwing. It’s not a time to get conservative, it’s a time to make first downs. Our guys did a good job of doing that."
 
Make no mistake. Buffalo had some success offensively. Spiller rushed 14 times for 107 yards, including a long run of 41 yards. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson caught six passes for 106 yards, with a long play of 63 yards. But on both of those plays, the Colts defense didn't allow a touchdown. And as the game turned out, not giving up a TD in either or both situations loomed large later.
 
"You knew C.J. [Spiller] was going to break one or two, just keep him out of the end zone and don’t let him score. Our guys hustled to the end. We chased some guys down on long plays and then defended every blade of grass that was left and that’s the way you play defense," Arians said.
 
Fitzpatrick completed 17-of-33 passes for 180 yards and a TD. He was also sacked twice, one each by Freeman and outside linebacker Robert Mathis.
 
The Colts plan to celebrate the win over Buffalo for a short time and then begin preparations for a tough matchup with Detroit.
 
"It’s just one game at a time. Once you start doing that, we’re going to add them up and see where we stand tomorrow. I know we have seven wins and not too many teams do," Arians voiced.
 
"We’ve got a big, big challenge in Detroit against a high-powered offense and another great front four. We’ll see how our guys came out [of Sunday's game] and see who is available Wednesday and go back to work.”