Whatever happens to the Indianapolis Colts at halftime, it’s not something out of Hollywood, with the coach giving an emotional, impassioned speech that motivated the players to run through walls.
Mostly it was just business. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky adjusted some coverages, interim head coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians made a couple of changes to open up the running game, and the team went back to work.
Oh, there was a little yelling Sunday afternoon when the Colts trailed Tennessee 20-7 at the break, but much of that came from Cory Redding.
“A lot of stuff was said at halftime,” he said. “Coaches are talking. Players are talking. I’m talking that’s why I’m hoarse but when men get challenged to stand up, they stand up and that’s what we’ve done these last few weeks in getting these wins.”
As has become their habit, the Colts came to life in the second half, came up with precisely the big plays they needed at precisely the right moments, and rallied to beat the Titans 27-23. It marked the sixth time they have overcome a fourth-quarter deficit to win, and the third in which they trailed by at least two scores at intermission.
With a 9-4 record, the Colts have a two-game lead in the wild-card race over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – who both lost Sunday – with three remaining. Indianapolis’ magic number for clinching the most improbable playoff berth in recent NFL history is one.
All because this incredibly young, seriously banged-up and unfailingly resilient team once again responded to adversity.
“There’s no hollering and screaming and all that kind of stuff. That’s for movies,” said Arians. “We get our guys in, we talk about what we need to do, what plays we’re going to run and just address what went wrong and what we need to do to correct it, let’s correct it.
“Cory and a few of the veterans, they’ll get vocal. But as coaches, we don’t need to do that. Hollering and screaming doesn’t get anything done. You’re either ready to play or not. Our job is to teach. We got some good teaching done at halftime.”
Much like last week, when the Colts trailed 23-14 in Detroit at halftime, they came out of the locker room and put together an impressive touchdown drive, moving 80 yards in 14 plays while leaning more on the running game than the arm of Andrew Luck. Vick Ballard carried five times for 41 yards and Delone Carter got the touchdown on a one-yard burst.
The offense having done its job, special teams then pitched in when Pat McAfee drilled a perfect coffin-corner punt that backed up the Titans to their 1-yard line.
Then it was the defense’s turn, as Cassius Vaughn jumped the out route, intercepted Jake Locker’s pass and strolled three yards into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“It’s a lot of fun to play on this team, just because guys play football,” Luck said. “No matter what the score, they’re out there playing football. If we put the defense in a bad position, they’ll hold them to a field goal instead of a touchdown. You see a great punt by Pat McAfee and the next play, six points for us. We try and hold up our end of the bargain as well every now and then, but it’s a real fun team to play on.”
The only time the defense bent in the second half came on a 16-play, 73-yard drive, but it did not break, holding the Titans to a field goal that gave the visitors a 23-21 lead.
Luck and Ballard provided an immediate counter, the quarterback hitting Donnie Avery for an 18-yard gain on second-and 15 and Ballard chewing up 14 yards on second-and-10 as the Colts moved into field goal range – barely. Adam Vinatieri nailed a 53-yarder to put the Colts ahead by one and then Darius Butler’s interception set up another Vinatieri kick, this from 40.
Other than that one long drive, Tennessee managed just 13 yards on 11 plays, with two turnovers on its other four possessions of the second half. Locker, who was nearly flawless in the first half (15 of 20, 213 yards, a 125.6 rating), was a non-factor in the second (7 of 15, 49 yards, two interceptions, a 15.0 rating).
“In crunch time,” Arians said, “our defense has been outstanding throughout the whole season.”
Though he broke Peyton Manning’s club rookie record for passing yardage in a season, this was not one of those days when Luck simply elevated his game and carried the team. Not even close. He struggled much of the game, completing 16 of 34 for 196 yards and two interceptions – one returned for a touchdown on a play that a play that we’d all be discussing had the Colts not come back.
Midway through the second quarter, Luck was falling forward when he released an ill-advised pass that launched into the gut of Titans linebacker Will Witherspoon, who held on and scampered 40 yards for a touchdown.
Replays shown in the stadium and on CBS clearly showed Luck’s left knee hitting the turf before the ball was released but after a review, the officials upheld the original ruling.
“I was hoping they would call me down,” Luck said, “but I probably deserved a pick-six for trying to throw a football in that position going down right at a defender.”
This one was more about Ballard, who gained 77 of his career-high 94 yards in the second half, the defense and special teams.
Not to mention a locker room full of coaches and players that simply refuse to yield to circumstance.