To suggest a late September game between teams that combined for five victories the previous season was somehow important might seem a bit, well, silly.
And yet, this 23-20 victory, not just the result but how it was achieved, could prove profoundly so for the young Indianapolis Colts.
Suppose, just for a moment, they had lost, blowing a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter at home against Minnesota. That would mean an 0-2 start and all of a sudden that optimism, that belief, that conviction this team was headed in the right direction could begin to waver and the Colts would face the very real possibility of heading into the bye week 0-3, launching us into another prolonged examination of the prospects at the top of the next draft.
We really don’t want that, especially because nothing comes to mind that easily rhymes with Barkley.
Instead, they did blow that two-touchdown cushion but their rookie quarterback, veteran wide receivers and future Hall of Fame kicker bailed them out. Starting at his own 20 yard line with 31 seconds left, Andrew Luck tossed consecutive 20-yard completions – to Donnie Avery on the left and then Reggie Wayne on the right.
After a brief, confused execution of an offsides penalty and a spike that proved unnecessary, Adam Vinatieri launched the longest of his 24 career game-winners from 53 yards. They don’t give saves in football, but Vinatieri qualified.
“It’s huge, you know, because what you’re trying to sell, everything that we started from culture to offensive system, defensive system, special teams across the board, everything that you’re trying to sell to your kids from a confidence standpoint just, to find a way to win that thing at the end, it would have been obviously a devastating deal on many levels for every kid in that locker room, especially the young ones,” Coach Chuck Pagano said. “But to be able to come out of there with a victory is again a testament to them and it’ll go a long way moving forward.”
Oh, it was ugly, but now the Colts are 1-1, that game against Jacksonville next week looks a whole lot better and a 2-1 start into the bye week looks more a likelihood than a possibility.
>> Luck did not throw an interception, passed for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He also was the team’s most effective running threat, averaging 5.3 yards on four carries. The rookie executed a pair of two-minute drill scoring drives, taking the team 64 yards in a little more than a minute capped by a 30-yard touchdown pass to Wayne that gave the Colts a 17-6 lead at the break. Throw in his nice work in the two-minute drill late in the first half in Chicago last week, and it makes you wonder if the Colts should consider a no-huddle offense more frequently. Pagano said he would only consider that if the offensive line can develop some continuity.
>> Speaking of which, when center Samson Satele left with a knee injury in the second quarter, the Colts were down to one starter at his normal position, left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Mike McGlynn moved from right guard to center, a position he last played regularly with Philadelphia in 2010. Newcomer Trai Essex stepped into McGlynn’s spot. Seth Olsen already was filling in for the injured Joe Reitz (knee) at left guard, and Jeff Linkenbach subbed for Winston Justice (concussion) at right tackle). “Challenged?”McGlynn said of the adversity facing the line. “You could say that.”
>> Back to Luck for a moment. After picking up a goose egg on third down last week (he was 1 of 7 for 19 yards and an interception, a 0.0 passer rating), Luck was 5-fo-8 for 37 yards and both of his TDs on third down against the Vikings for a rating of 113.0.
>> Of the many learning opportunities for the Colts, none stands out greater than the last. One first down at the Minnesota 40-yard line with 18 seconds left, Luck completed a seven-yard pass to Avery, but officials called the Vikings for offsides. The Colts took the penalty and then had Luck spike the ball to stop the clock – even though it hadn’t started. “I was under the understanding that they were going to wind the clock and then Andrew would kill it with four seconds left and then we’d kick the field goal and have the walk-off and don’t have to defend a couple Hail Mary passes,” Pagano said.
>> Here’s a curiosity: even though there was no running game to speak of (84 yards on 30 carries, a 2.8 average), the Colts had a much more balanced offense, with 33 drop-backs for a nearly 50-50 split. Last week they dropped back 48 times and had just 15 running plays. Donald Brown carried 16 times for 45 yards (2.8).
>> Starting for the second week in a row in place of Austin Collie (concussion), Avery had a career-high nine receptions. His 111 receiving yards fell short of his career mark of 166. The veteran has quickly developed a nice rhythm with Luck. “I know he got dinged up and missed some time in the preseason but the guy has worked his tail off to get to where he is,” Pagano said. “We see it every day in practice. So I’m not surprised at all by the day he had.”
>> Given the absence of Dwight Freeney (ankle) and Pat Angerer (foot), the defense performed relatively well, certainly a step forward from the Chicago loss. Adrian Peterson was contained to 60 yards on 16 carries (19 on eight carries in the second half). Percy Harvin was a little more problematic with 12 receptions for 104 yards but the Vikings had no gain of more than 20 yards. The Colts also sacked Christian Ponder four times, with Robert Mathis picking up his third of the young season. Jerrell Freeman had 13 tackles to lead the team, including a sack.
>> Though he will be correctly scrutinized for his handling of that late-game penalty-spike scenario, give Pagano credit for going for the win with 31 seconds remaining, rather than having Luck take a knee and play for overtime. “(One year) ago, I would have said we probably would have gone for overtime, but this coaching staff, we like to gamble,” said Wayne. “Whenever they call that, you want to come through for them because if anything bad happens, it’s going to be all fingers pointing at them. You want to go out there and show up and do something big for them to prove their judgment right.”