INDIANAPOLIS – The regular season was heading into the home stretch, and the Colts had played well in the first three quarters.
Indianapolis had gone 2-2, 3-1 and 3-1 to forge an 8-4 record that stood among the front-running AFC teams jockeying for playoff berths.
The Colts had wins in six of their last seven games, and they were doing so with a roster of nine rookies, 25 players with no more than two years NFL experience and with but 18 players who had been with the team previously.
All the club had done to this point was to position itself. It was gunning for its fifth straight home win, and it was trying to stay on the heels of Houston (11-1), whom the Colts would play twice in the last four games.
Indianapolis was seeking a sweep of Tennessee and having won late in Nashville in dramatic fashion, payback might have been on the Titans' minds.
What was on the minds of those covering the team was the hackneyed concept of this being a "trap" game to open the final quarter. It was a notion summarily dismissed by Bruce Arians.
"(Laughs) the trap for us is showing up every day, getting the right stuff done on the practice field without me chewing their tails (off)," said Arians. "This team is very resilient. They know what's at stake.
"The veteran leadership has got them in a position to make sure they're ready to go. The young guys don't want to let anyone down. They're going to make sure they get (assignments) done."
On another concept, Arians disagreed when asked if the team were playing over its head.
"No. I think there are times we've played below our ability," said Arians. "Other times, we've played more mature than people give us credit to be because we have many young players and rookies. They are mature, solid players. Youth was out the window six weeks ago for us. I don't think we're playing over our heads at all."
Robert Mathis credited the team's 8-4 performance to its character, for understanding the daily process and then following it meticulously. He expected the same as the club attacked the remaining four games one step at a time.
"Poise, fight, guys coming to work and punching the clock, letting it be known that you have a job to do, then executing it," said Mathis.
A look at the games 13 and 14 of the 2012 season:
Game 13: COLTS 27, TENNESSEE 23
The records of the teams entering the game were in complete contrast from 2011 when Tennessee visited in December.
A year ago, the Titans were 7-6 with playoff aspirations, while the Colts were 0-13. Indianapolis triumphed to help derail post-season possibilities for Tennessee. Now, the Titans were 4-8 and hoped to do the same to the Colts, and they were successful in the first half.
Tennessee marched 80 yards for a touchdown to start the game, with second-year quarterback Jake Locker tossing a scoring pass to tight end Jared Cook.
Though Indianapolis evened matters later in the period, the Titans used a potent second quarter to grab a 20-7 halftime lead.
Rob Bironas converted a 40-yard field goal after a long Locker completion to Kenny Britt, and the Titans pushed the lead to 10 points when Will Weatherspoon intercepted a third-down pass from a scrambling Luck and returned the ball 40 yards for a score eight minutes later.
The ensuing Colts drive was barely better with a fumble and a sack, providing Tennessee the ball once again. Locker hit another 46-yard completion, and it took a defensive stand at the 10-yard line to limit the Titans to a field goal and a 13-point halftime cushion. For 30 minutes, it was a mission accomplished for Tennessee.
Like the week before, Indianapolis changed the complexion of the game with a second half-opening drive. A 14-play drive mixed with eight runs covered 80 yards, and Delone Carter tallied on a one-yard burst off a three-TE set.
Three minutes later, the game flipped in the blink of an eye.
Pat McAfee punted directionally 52 yards, and his boot went out at the Tennessee one-yard line. Cassius Vaughn stepped in front of a Locker pass on the next play and returned the interception three yards for a 21-20 Colts lead.
Tennessee righted itself with a sustained march that extended into the fourth quarter. The Titans reached the Indianapolis two, but the Colts held and Bironas added a 25-yard field goal with 10:28 left.
Tennessee handed the Colts a first down via penalty after a third-down stop to open the drive. Vick Ballard had a 14-yard run and Donnie Avery had an 18-yard reception before Adam Vinatieri booted a 53-yard field goal with 6:23 left for a 24-23 lead. Vinatieri added a 40-yarder three minutes later following a Darius Butler interception.
One final defensive stop with 2:42 left ended the threat, and Indianapolis milked remaining time off the clock, despite Tennessee taking its three timeouts, to earn a sixth fourth-quarter or overtime comeback win.
"It was the tale of two halves," said Arians. "Why we played as poorly as we did in the first half, we'll go back and try to evaluate. We were not on in any phase of the game, other than Pat McAfee kicking the heck out of the ball. (In the) second half, we figured out how and what we needed to do and (overcame) what we had dug. That was a great drive to start the second half, and our defense did a heck of a job getting some turnovers. It was a great team win. There won't be any blowouts with this team. This team is too young. We just try to figure out a way to win every week. So far, we've been able to do that."
Arians cited a spread approach for the team rushing effectively in the second half.
"We went back to our spread stuff. They had hammered us pretty good in our big package," said Arians. "We had the threat of the pass, and that spreads them out a little bit. They started to play a little more six in the box, and we were able to get after them."
Cory Redding said there is something gritty about the team that allows it to rebound from rough starts.
"We always play. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable," said Redding. "When you're in that situation, that's when you should thrive. We've been showing that week-in and week-out. I guess we like it tough, you know? We're learning how to win with our backs against the wall.
"(It's) keeping the faith, keep fighting and not quitting. We don't concede to the words 'quit' or 'loss,' especially when we're at home. No matter how bad a game starts, we still have 30 minutes in the second half to do something. That's what we did. We're doing it."
Turning point: The crowd barely had sat down after Pat McAfee's 52-yard punt went out of bounds at the Tennessee one in the third quarter when Cassius Vaughn jumped a route and returned his interception three yards for score and a 21-20 Colts lead. It was a clutch play for the team's first lead of the day. "That's the only thing we try to do is make plays," said Vaughn. "We just try to make plays, and that's what we thrive on."
Moment to remember: Vontae Davis sacked Jake Locker at the Colts' 10 late in the first half to force a field goal that kept the Colts within 20-7 while playing poorly. Davis leveled Chris Johnson for a five-yard loss at the club's 10 again early in the fourth quarter, then defensed a pass two plays later to force another field goal that kept Indianapolis within 23-21. The second stop set up a subsequent memorable moment when Adam Vinatieri converted a 53-yard field goal to put the Colts back ahead to stay, 24-23. Davis was clutch, as was Vinatieri. It was his 53-yard field goal against Minnesota on September that marked the club's first fourth-quarter or overtime win, and this win was the sixth such triumph.
Note: The Colts ran for 98 yards on 30 carries, despite gaining 12 yards on 10 rushes in the first half. It was the sixth game the team had less than 50 rushing yards in a first half. Running backs Delone Carter and Robert Hughes left with second-half injuries, and Vick Ballard was the lone healthy runner. Ballard was banged up late, something that forced Arians to throw on second down on the last possession. "It's a matter of trust," said Arians. "The first down was going to be the game. I didn't have a lot of confidence that we could run it two more times because Vick had a stinger earlier in the drive, and I was afraid of the ball popping out." Luck finished the game with 3,792 passing yards to set a club rookie record. His ninth starting win tied Chris Chandler's (1989) rookie record. Reggie Wayne (956) moved into 10th-place in NFL career receptions. Wayne also became the eighth NFL receiver with 100 career receptions against three opponents (Houston, Jacksonville, Tennessee). He tied Marvin Harrison with a sixth career 1,200 -yardage season. Pat McAfee punted four times for a 53.3 average (49.8 net). A.Q. Shipley again subbed at center and played well.
*Quote to note: *"That's (mastering key moments) exactly what it is. The guys have a great resolve about themselves. It was a 60-minute game. There was no panic at halftime down 13 like we were. We've come back from 18 (against Green Bay). We came back from 12 (against Detroit) last week. It's just, 'Make the next play.' " – Bruce Arians
*Quote to note (2): *"It's like B.A. (Arians) always tells us, 'Tear drops and snot bubbles only last until you get hit that first time. After that, you've got to man up.' It's a nice media story how we're playing for our coach, and it's true, we are playing for our coach, but in the end you've got to produce." – Dwayne Allen
Game 14: HOUSTON 29, COLTS 17
The Colts watched the division race get tighter the night after they beat Tennessee when Houston lost, 42-14, at New England.
All of the sudden, a matchup of the 9-4 Colts and 11-2 Texans made observers look closer at the game being played in Reliant Stadium.
The Colts were trying to get to 10 wins and make the rematch in Indianapolis on December 30 have division title significance, while Houston wanted to close the deal on a race it had led since the season's outset.
Winners in seven of its last eight games, Indianapolis would win the division crown if it won its last three games. Houston was battling Denver and New England for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Injuries would be a factor for the Colts. Tom Zbikowski, Delone Carter, Samson Satele, Kavell Conner and Winston Justice would be down, while running backs Donald Brown and Robert Hughes were placed on injured reserve and were replaced by Mewelde Moore and Deji Karim.
Houston was adept at scoring early, and a hungry Texans crowd awaited, along with Arian Foster (1,148 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and J.J. Watt (16.5 sacks, 15 batted passes) as the team sought a second straight AFC South title.
Arians thought it was time for the Colts to re-establish divisional control, saying, "Houston won the division last year. Indianapolis won it seven out of the last 10. It is time to hopefully go back and re-establish ourselves as the dominant team in the division. That's our goal."
Houston typically started quickly, scoring 10 points on drives of 69 and 57 yards, with the second march ending with a three-yard pass from Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson.
Indianapolis squandered a short field when it drove 37 yards to the Houston one on its third possession. Mewelde Moore fumbled to end a threat. Indianapolis found itself back at the Texans' five moments later, but a penalty negated a touchdown pass and Adam Vinatieri hit a short field goal.
Houston moved the count to 20-3 with a field goal on the ensuing drive and by blocking a Pat McAfee punt for a touchdown with 1:46 left in the half.
Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton teamed on a 61-yard scoring play to cut the halftime score to 20-10. Johnson had seven first-half receptions for 107 yards, while Watt had two of three Houston sacks.
Indianapolis moved within 23-17 late in the third quarter, but Houston closed the door by owning the ball for 8:33 of the fourth quarter and with Foster gaining 79 of his 165 rushing yards.
Johnson had 11 receptions for 151 yards, while Schaub was 23-of-31 passing for 261 yards, and Luck was sacked five times. Watt had 10 tackles (six for losses), three sacks, four QB hits and one forced fumble. The Texans were credited with 10 hits on Luck in addition to the sacks.
"We can't come into a stadium like this and beat ourselves, have them block kicks, one-for-eight on third down and one-for-three in the red zone," said Arians. "We beat ourselves in some areas. Overall, it was a tough loss for us. We came here with one idea, and that was to win the division and we're not going to win the division. They did it…and we'll see them in a couple weeks."
After 94 yards against Tennessee a week ago, Vick Ballard had 105 yards on 18 rushes at Houston.
"He ran extremely well," said Arians. "I thought we had a plan coming in where he would have a good day. He made guys miss, and that's the type of player he is. He's just going to get better and better. He's where I think he should be right now."
Playing in his hometown for the first time as a pro, Luck was 13-of-27 passing for 186 yards, with scoring passes to Hilton (61 yards) and Dwayne Allen (eight), but he was unfulfilled with the result.
"They did a great job defensively of never letting us establish a rhythm or getting in a rhythm," said Luck. "They definitely brought the pressure to us as opposed to us bringing it to them and forced us into some bad decisions. We occasionally shot ourselves in the foot, but I think that's a credit to their defense putting the pressure on us and us not rising up to the occasion and falling behind early. It's tough against a team with a high-caliber offense like this. For our defense to keep us in the game and then us not really take advantage of opportunities was a killer for us."
Turning point: Three moments in the second quarter spelled the story. Mewelde Moore's fumble at the one-yard line halted a scoring chance in a 10-0 game. One drive later, a penalty wiped out a Colts touchdown pass, and the club settled for a field goal. Just prior to the half, Houston blocked a punt and returned it eight yards for a score and a 20-3 bulge. Against an 11-2 team on the road, the mistakes took a huge toll. "Those are mistakes we have not been making. I'll take the blame for Vick not being in on the goal-line. … We probably should have had Vick in there for that play. The blocked punt was a technical error," said Arians.
Moment to remember: The final score was 180 degrees from the goal going in of extending the race for the division crown. A Colts win would have been the first of three possible steps of seizing a division title no outsider predicted, but that was the team's goal heading into the season. Talk was not of revenge when the teams would meet again in two weeks. Talk was to get better and keep competing. Teams measure themselves in different ways, but a key one is in the division. Houston had the crown. The Wild Card route was the only one to the playoffs, and Indianapolis was intent on winning its last two to secure a playoff berth.
Note: Andrew Luck ended the game with 3,978 passing yards, 74 away from setting the NFL's rookie record (4,051, Cam Newton). He ended the game with 20 touchdown passes for the year and wound up as one of eight NFL rookies even to have 20 TD passes. Luck and T.Y. Hilton combined on a 61-yard touchdown pass, the longest scoring play for the team in 2012. It was Luck's sixth TD pass exceeding 30 yards and the fourth topping 40 yards. The Colts' 80-yard scoring drive in the third quarter came with rookies (Luck, Ballard, Allen) gaining every yard. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney each had sacks. Antoine Bethea topped 500 solo tackles for his career. Jerrell Freeman topped 10 tackles for the 12th time in 14 games. Adam Vinatieri produced his 15th career season with 100 points, one behind the NFL record of Jason Elam, while he snapped the tie he held with Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson.
*Quote to note: *"We got beat by a good team, period, no excuses, no explanations, no, 'Woe is me.' There were some good chances (to win). Going into the fourth quarter, we still were down by six, c'mon man. We were still in the game. We had great opportunities to go out there and win it. We just got away from it. We got beat by a good team. We'll take that loss, learn from it and all our focus and energy is on Kansas City." – Cory Redding