INDIANAPOLIS – An NFL season has twists and turns for every team, and the Colts certainly had seen and responded to their share as the season reached the fifth game.
Two dramatic home wins, the second with a sick head coach, were the responses to two difficult losses. A young team starting a great number of rookies added another when Donald Brown hurt a knee late in the Green Bay game. Vick Ballard joined other draft class buddies as a full-time performer.
The 2-2 mark meant the club stayed in contention, and the need to start a winning streak was mentioned by the coaches. The term "stack," as in stacking victories together, was introduced. A club that listened intently to its coaches responded, just not immediately.
The Colts absorbed three defeats by very wide margins during the season. The first was at Chicago in the opener. The second one came to open the season's second quarter when the Colts visited the New York Jets. The team had talked about the need to learn to handle matters away from home, but the result was anything but that on the second road trip. The second quarter of the season saw that matter rectified, and it saw the urging to stack wins together addressed, too.
Indianapolis rolled to a 3-1 record during the second quarter, winning a key game against Miami to close the quarter. That win created some separation in the AFC standings that remained with the Colts the rest of the way.
As Pagano watched, then made a special home cameo, the Colts kept moving forward in the second quarter.
A look at games five and six of the 2012 season:
Game 5: NEW YORK JETS 35, COLTS 9
Turning point: In the Chicago opener, the Colts played their way out of the game in the second and third quarters of a 20-point loss.
Talk all week was of this being a business trip for a young team that needed success on the road. A chance at success came early when the Colts moved to the Jets' two, but they had to settle for Adam Vinatieri hitting a short field goal.
New York flipped the game in the second quarter with three touchdowns. First, Mark Sanchez tossed a short scoring pass to start the assault, then Andrew Luck was intercepted by Antonio Cromartie. Though Cromartie's scoring return was negated, the Jets only needed to cover 35 yards. Shonn Green (32-161, 3 TDs rushing) scored his first touchdown from 10 yards out to close the drive and produce a 14-3 Jets lead.
Going up-tempo, the Colts moved 53 yards before stalling, and Vinatieri added a second field goal. The third Jets touchdown of the quarter came with 27 seconds left when Sanchez tossed a five-yard pass to Jason Hill. The drive appeared stalled at the Colts' 40, but Tim Tebow threw a 23-yard pass from the punt formation, and the Jets led by 15 points at the break.
Green had 91 of the Jets' 106 first-half rushing yards, and he added scoring runs in each of the last two periods.
Vinatieri's third field goal came with 20 seconds elapsed in the fourth quarter and was followed by a red zone interception of Luck. The Colts turned the ball over three times in the period.
Vick Ballard made his first start, joining Luck, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener in opening unit. The rookies played prominent roles the whole year. Injuries kept Donald Brown, Robert Mathis, Fili Moala, Pat Angerer and Joe Reitz from playing, while Cory Redding missed most of the action.
The Jets converted five red zone possessions into touchdowns, while the Colts failed on both such excursions.
"If you can't block and you can't tackle, you can't win," said Bruce Arians. "It's fundamentals, things that we identified going into the game, fake punts, stopping the run, (and) protecting the quarterback. Red zone offense and defense were the keys to the game, and we didn't win in any of those areas.
"It wasn't the preparation. We'll go back to doing the same things and learn to carry it on the road with us, and that's the big thing for this football team right now is to learn how to play on the road."
*Moment to remember: *After cutting the score to 14-6 to hopefully stall momentum, Tim Tebow completed a 23-yard pass from the punt formation to put the Jets deep in Colts territory. A touchdown followed four plays later and at 21-6, the Colts did not recover. After forcing two Jets punts to start the second half, Joe McKnight burst 61 yards to set up a fourth touchdown.
Note: Turnovers spelled the difference in three lopsided road defeats at Chicago, in this game and later at New England. The Colts were minus-four against the Jets, just as they had been against the Bears. The Jets rushed for 14 of their 22 first downs, while the Colts failed to get a rushing first down for only the sixth time in franchise history. The Colts snapped 27 plays in New York territory without scoring a touchdown. Reggie Wayne became the 14th NFL player with 900-plus career receptions. Vinatieri added MetLife Stadium as the 38th venue in which he had kicked a field goal.
*Quote to note: *"I am not going to say the road is the reason for our troubles," said Luck. "I think that we handled communication fine, whatever it may be, if we are not as jacked up or maybe too jacked up, emotionless or too emotional, we just have to figure it out and find that happy medium and realize it is still a football field and go out and play football like we know how to do."
Game 6: COLTS 17, CLEVELAND 13
A basic tenet of NFL success is the ability to run the football, and that was something the Colts failed to do a week earlier at New York when they had 41 yards.
Knowing they had to be more productive when ground success mattered, Indianapolis achieved that in a bounce-back victory over Cleveland.
What also was a bounce-back was the Colts' defense. After yielding 252 rushing yards at the Jets, a stingy unit allowed Cleveland 55, including eight yards on the same number of attempts by rookie rusher Trent Richardson.
The result? A 17-13 home victory where a comeback was not needed.
Where the offense was stung by red zone inefficiencies a week ago, Andrew Luck took matters into his own hands. He rushed for a three-yard score 7:37 into action to cap the game's opening drive, an 80-yarder. Luck was four-of-four passing for 67 yards and found different receivers on every connection. Vick Ballard factored into six of the drive's 11 plays.
Indianapolis countered a long Browns touchdown march early in the second quarter with a marathon 14-play, 76-yard drive that Luck capped with a five-yard bootleg around the right side. The Colts led, 14-6, at halftime.
When Cleveland cut the score to 14-13 with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon, the Colts responded again. On an ensuing 17-play drive, Indianapolis converted a third down and fourth down, reaching the Cleveland 19, and Adam Vinatieri boomed a 38-yard field goal for a four-point cushion that stood up over the game's last 18 minutes.
The Indianapolis defense limited Cleveland to 98 net yards, five first downs and no points after the initial score of the second half. Four straight drives ended in punts, and Indianapolis held at its 39 on a fourth-down Cleveland gamble with 1:57 to go.
The Colts rushed effectively to the Cleveland 35 before punting the ball away. One final desperation play from its 20 by Cleveland was thwarted.
"Absolutely, 100 percent, I think," said Luck of this being a team win. "Everyone – special teams, defense, offense – was working together. That's what it takes, as I'm quickly finding out in this league.
"It was great to see the guys up front working real hard. They've worked hard the whole year. It's nice to see the backs busting those runs. We got some good momentum from that. It's nice to see a little pound, some first downs, two runs in a row, and three runs in a row and get those first downs. It makes life a little easier as a quarterback."
The Colts had evened their record at 3-3. It was the last time all year the Colts saw their record at .500.
"It's (being 3-3) huge," said Reggie Wayne. "It's a big, old, cluster of teams that seem like they are around the same 3-3, 4-3, whatever. That just puts us right in the hunt, so now we just have to keep on pushing forward and don't look back."
Turning point: At 17-13 and though no points had been scored in the quarter, the game hung in the balance with 1:57 to go. Cleveland never had the lead, but it was at the Indianapolis 39 with a fourth-and-seven chance. Jerraud Powers, whose key interception swayed the Green Bay comeback, defensed a pass from Brandon Weeden to Greg Little. The incompletion ended the possession and two plays later, Vick Ballard peeled off a 26-yard run on second-and-13 to help seal the win. The two key moments iced the win. Arians had said during the year rushing numbers were not as important and being successful at key times. Ballard's run, though he went out of bounds and stopped the clock, was a key run.
Moment to remember: It came away from the bright lights of the playing field, but it was wonderful and made news nonetheless. In the post-game locker room, Owner and CEO Jim Irsay informed the team Chuck Pagano had been able to watch the win at home. He had been discharged from the hospital earlier in the morning.
Note: Luck's two scoring runs made him the third Colts QB ever with two in a game, and the first since 1988.
He became the first rookie with 1,500 passing yards (1,674) and three wins in a team's first six games. Indianapolis controlled the second half, scoring only three points but making numerous defensive stands. The Colts owned the ball nearly 19 minutes of the second half. Ballard had 20 rushes, the first time a Colts back had that many attempts in a game since 2010. Pat Angerer returned to action and had six tackles, his first playing time since breaking a foot on the preseason's first snap. Cory Redding, Fili Moala and Robert Mathis were out with injuries, as was key defensive reserve Martin Tevaseu. Indianapolis got major contributions from linemen Lawrence Guy and Clifton Geathers. "They stepped up and played good for us, hammering it up in there, especially (Lawrence Guy)," said Arians. "He came in Tuesday and I thought he played really well. (Geathers) stepped in there and plugged his gap pretty solid. You can't say enough about young guys coming in off the street, getting an opportunity and being a part of a big win."
*Quote to note: *"Great news, Coach Pagano celebrated this one at home. He was at the house, released. We're really excited about that. That's probably as big as the win today. He's been released to his house. The treatments will go on from there. I'm sure he's doing great right now. Hopefully, he didn't get too dag-gone exhausted again coaching." – Bruce Arians