INDIANAPOLIS – On more than one occasion during the first half of the season, the Colts were described as resilient as they posted a 5-3 record.
A young team bounced back from every loss with a victory and after a 2-3 start, it had won three straight games. Indianapolis had developed a flair for the dramatic with four comeback wins in the fourth quarter or overtime, and it resided in the upper echelon of teams seeking playoff berths.
Advantageous positions in the standings can change weekly and dramatically. The Colts approached the third quarter of the season like they did the first half, by focusing on one play at a time. They were instructed to have that narrow-visioned approach and then look up at the end of the year to see how the numbers added up.
The third quarter was presenting two opponents from the AFC East – New England and Buffalo – as well as the season's last foe from the NFC North – Detroit.
It also marked the only quarter of the season when three games were to be played on the road. Indianapolis had won once in three previous road games, and that was in overtime where a late 80-yard drive tied the game at Tennessee before an overtime-opening touchdown drive won it.
Playing consistently well on the road had not been accomplished despite the positive step in Nashville. As one of six AFC teams with at least six wins, staying in contention during the dog days of the season had to be done on the road.
As the quarter started, the initial challenge was heightened by a short week. Indianapolis was to meet the Jaguars on Thursday Night Football in Jacksonville. It marked the fifth straight year of meeting a divisional foe on a nationally-televised Thursday night game.
Road teams on Thursday nights to this point had won only twice in eight tries. The Colts looked to extend a winning streak then enjoy a long weekend.
A look at games nine and 10 of the 2012 season:
Game 9: COLTS 27, JACKSONVILLE 10
The Colts visited the Jaguars with a three-game winning streak on the line, while Jacksonville stood at 1-7. Its only victory had come on a last-minute 80-yard touchdown pass in Indianapolis on September 23.
The Colts were coming off one of their most impressive outings of the year, a 23-20 win over Miami, while Jacksonville was coming off a 17-point loss at Detroit and having scored but 117 points all season.
A season of mainly playing tight games was suspended for one week as the Colts bolted to the first 17 points of the contest.
As he had done against Cleveland, Luck sparked the offense by rushing for two touchdowns for an early edge. His two tallies against the Browns provided an eight-point first-half cushion in an eventual four-point win, while they helped provide a 17-0 lead at Jacksonville that represented the game's final margin.
The Indianapolis defense kept Jacksonville scoreless until allowing a field goal with 17 seconds left in the half. Until that drive, the Colts limited Jacksonville to 99 net yards on its first five possessions. Aiding matters was Jacksonville starting five-of-six first-half drives at or inside its 20.
Darius Butler made his first start at right cornerback memorable when he returned an interception of Blaine Gabbert 11 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Butler had recovered a fumble in the second quarter, a takeaway that set up the Colts' first touchdown.
Playing with its largest lead of the season, the Colts were able to close out the win. A sack-fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter sunk a Colts scoring chance. Indianapolis knocked Gabbert from the game on the ensuing possession, and Chad Henne stepped in to complete an 81-yard touchdown drive to cut the score to 24-10 with 9:16 to go.
Donald Brown rushed six times and Luck was roughed on a scramble as the Colts milked the clock. Adam Vinatieri hit a 41-yard field goal for another 17-point cushion with 3:23 left.
Butler capped his night with an interception of Henne just after the two-minute warning. It appeared Butler would make team history with a second scoring return in one game, but he was hauled down at the Jacksonville 13 after a 51-yard scamper.
"We're real excited about getting a road win in our division," said Bruce Arians. "It wasn't the best game for 60 minutes, but it was one of our better efforts. I knew the turnovers were going to come sooner or later, and they did. That's one thing Chuck (Pagano) and I talked about this week. He said, 'Just sit tight and don't talk about it and it's going to happen, but they did and they were big.' "
The Colts had not produced a multiple-takeaway game all season and had been a combined minus-nine in turnover ratio in three prior road outings. Three takeaways at Jacksonville matched the total forced in the first eight games.
"It keeps the winning streak going. It's huge, and it's a division win. Jacksonville got us earlier this year, and we didn't want to go 0-2 against a team," said Arians. "To get one on the road, it's great and it's a step in the right direction."
For Arians, it was his fifth win, setting a club mark by an interim coach. It was no time in his mind to reflect.
"No one looks back in the middle of the season and says, 'You're 6-3, great.' It's what we do at the end of the season. Again, it's a step in the right direction," said Arians.
Turning point: Darius Butler had put the club in good shape with a first-half fumble recovery that helped get the season's biggest lead (17 points) at that point. He upped the season's biggest cushion to 21 points and sealed the game with his 11-yard scoring interception return in the third quarter. Butler's three-takeaway effort matched those done previously by Leonard Coleman (1986) and Mike Prior (1992) and stood behind only Eugene Daniel (four, 1985) for the most in a game by a Colt since 1984.
Moment to remember: Luck set a club record with his second rushing touchdown of the game. It marked his fifth on the year, and it was his second two-touchdown rushing performance. Bert Jones (1974) and Peyton Manning (2001, 2006) had the previous club seasonal marks with four touchdown runs. Luck became the first Colts QB to do it twice in a career. He had been tied with Jones and Ricky Turner, who each had done it once. Luck's second score was on a fourth-and-one sneak, and the win tied him with Cam Newton (2011) and Jim Plunkett (1971) for the second-most wins by a rookie drafted first overall.
Note: Pat McAfee had punts killed at the Jacksonville 10- and four-yard lines, and both led to scores. The first set up a short field for a field goal, and the second preceded Butler's scoring return. The four-game winning streak was the longest for the team since 2010, and it evened the team's road record (2-2). The Colts moved to 10-1-1 on Thursday nights. Bruce Arians snapped the previous club record of John Sandusky (four, 1972) for most interim victories. The defense held Jacksonville to one-of-10 on third downs and to 37 rushing yards, the least surrendered in a game since 2009. Three of four sacks produced came from defensive backs. Approximately 30 Colts players and coaches participated in the game with shaved heads, something they did five days prior to the contest after Chuck Pagano paid his surprise visit after the Miami game. Indianapolis was missing six starters, including Vontae Davis, Jerraud Powers, Samson Satele, Winston Justice, Coby Fleener and Robert Mathis.
*Quote to note: *"It's (Luck's NFL transition) been great. He's come in and done an outstanding job. He's been able to do some things I'm not used to. He's been able to use his legs, get out of the pocket and extend plays. I think he throws better when he's on the run. I want to help him be the best he can. Whenever he calls my number, I want make sure I'm there to help deliver, keep winning games with him. I'm just glad to be on his side." – Reggie Wayne
Game 10: NEW ENGLAND 59, COLTS 24
Veterans like Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Adam Vinatieri has been participants in many Colts-Patriots games that decided key moments in the past.
With outside expectations for the Colts being low, many theorized this year's series renewal might not carry a great deal of consequence.
The game pitted teams, however, with 6-3 records and whose seasons could have collided again in the playoffs.
Bruce Arians missed those past matchups between these teams, but he had faced New England almost as regularly while with Pittsburgh. All parties in Indianapolis knew it would take a near-flawless effort to win and for two series, things went according to plan for the Colts.
Indianapolis assumed a 14-7 lead 13:16 into the game when Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton on a 14-yard scoring pass to end an 84-yard drive. This possession came after the Colts moved 80 yards to open the game with a score.
While the first 17 minutes of the game had balance, it tilted distinctly in New England's favor quickly in the second quarter. Two scoring returns – one by a punt return and one on an interception – within 1:01 on the clock put New England ahead to stay.
Up 24-17 to start the second half, Tom Brady directed a 10-play drive that included a 17-yard completion on third-and-11, and his second third-down conversion was a two-yard scoring flip to Julian Edelman, who had scored earlier on the punt return.
The lead grew to 21 points eight minutes later on a New England one-play, 24-yard drive after a Colts turnover, and Alfonzo Dennard increased it again less than four minutes later with an 87-yard scoring interception return.
Luck found Hilton on a 43-yard score with 12:32 left, but the Patriots scored twice more in their decisive win.
"I think they did a great job. Obviously they created a lot of turnovers," said Luck. "You know, when they did intercept the ball they did a great job of running it back. (I'm) disappointed in myself for committing four turnovers on my part and two of those went for immediate touchdowns."
Arians, like Chuck Pagano, harped on the season-long message to produce and be sharp. He did not want, nor expect, players to forget the loss.
"No, you better remember it. You better (darn) remember it," said Arians. "You hope to be back here and you don't want to forget it. You don't throw things away in this business, you learn from them. We will watch this tape real hard tomorrow. We won't burn it and go to the next one. We will watch it and learn from it, each guy individually and us collectively as a coaching staff and a group. And we will get better for it."
Reggie Wayne was of the same mind not to forget what happened.
"Why would you? Whenever you get taken behind the woodshed it's kind of hard to forget," said Wayne. "Hopefully, we take care of business and make sure we come back to this stadium."
Turning point: Occurring within 1:01 on the clock and after a promising start, Julian Edelman returned a punt 68 yards for a second-quarter touchdown to tie the game, 14-14. Two plays later, the Patriots grabbed a 21-14 lead when Aqib Talib returned an interception 59 yards. It was only a seven-point game, but the 61-second span set the Patriots in motion.
Moment to remember: Reggie Wayne gained another personal milestone while catching seven passes for 72 yards. He topped the 1,000-yard reception total for the eighth time in his career. It came on an 11-yard snare with 3:25 to go. Eight 1,000 seasons tied Wayne with Marvin Harrison for the club record.
Note: Indianapolis had its third minus-four road turnover ratio game of the year, and the club lost those games by 20, 26 and 35 points. The Colts entered the game with a minus-nine ratio for the year, but had given up only 33 points off the turnovers. New England scored 21 points off turnovers and added a scoring punt return. Three return scores allowed in a game by the Colts was a first since 1980. With 334 yards, Luck had his fifth 300 game, snapping the NFL rookie mark of Peyton Manning (1998). T.Y. Hilton had six receptions for 100 yards, his third 100 game, and it tied the rookie club mark of Andre Rison (1989).
*Quote to note: *"Yes, absolutely we can come back. We have the right guys in the organization, the right guys on the field in order to get through this and improve. This isn't the end of the world. This isn't the end of the team. This is not the last time people are going to hear from us. There still is a lot of football left. We all have to fix our mistakes. Personally, I made three mistakes out there today. We'll fix those and we'll get through this. We will continue to get better, improve and reach our goals." – Pat Angerer