INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts were 1-1 in the third quarter of the season with a 27-10 win at Jacksonville and a 59-24 setback at New England.
A look at games 11 and 12 of the 2012 season.
Game 11: COLTS 20, BUFFALO 13
A four-game winning streak was over, and it ended with a thud. It came in a game that had been moved to a late Sunday afternoon time slot, the time treasured by all teams where television audiences are the greatest.
A young team that had been resilient all season needed to bounce back and keep itself running among the conference's leading teams.
A group that had particularly not been able to start games quickly needed to do so, and there was no time like the present.
Sensing the nature of the game, Bruce Arians framed it accordingly.
"This is a playoff game for us. We have to take that approach because Buffalo's taking that approach," said Arians. "They're do-or-die. We'd better be do-or-die."
Indianapolis was facing a Buffalo team that had an explosive offense, one that used a variety of ways to get the ball to its running backs and after New England had been successful with its approach, the Colts needed to answer accordingly to avoid the season's first losing streak.
T.Y. Hilton answered the challenge, and he did so by heeding a text instruction from his head coach. Pagano during the week urged Hilton to "stretch and cut" when he was returning punts, meaning to read the coverage unit before bursting ahead. Hilton used the tip and raced 75 yards on a return barely five minutes into the game, giving Indianapolis a lead it never lost.
The Colts and Bills played on 6-6 terms with two field goals each through the rest of the half. After Indianapolis forced Buffalo to open the second half by punting for a fourth time in five possessions, Andrew Luck and the offense went to work.
Luck moved the club on a methodical 87-yard drive that took 15 plays. Four times he converted third downs with completions, including a 25-yarder to Reggie Wayne from the Buffalo 32. Luck ended the drive by finding Hilton on an eight-yard scoring play.
The bulk of C.J. Spiller's 107 rushing yards came on the Bills' lone touchdown drive. Spiller burst for 41 yards on the first play of the second possession after Hilton's touchdown. Fitzpatrick moved Buffalo 78 yards for the score, hitting a one-yard pass to cut the gap to 20-13 with 11:30 left in the game.
Tom Zbikowski intercepted Fitzpatrick at the Colts' 24 seven minutes later, but he fumbled the return and the Colts had to stop the Bills one last time. Indianapolis took possession with 3:22 to go and it was able to convert three first downs to drain the remaining time.
Arians said approaching the game as if it were the playoffs was the mind-set all week. Afterward, he liked the group effort displayed.
"When this thing was put together, Chuck (Pagano) built everything on 'team,' " said Arians. "I think that was a team victory right there, all phases. Our special teams showed up huge. I thought they won the game for us. Not only with the return for the touchdown and the field position they created but how well they covered. We asked Pat (McAfee) to have his best game ever as a kicker and he really contributed.
"They didn't give them anything on defense, hung in there when they had to. Offensively, we were able to put a drive together and finish one there at the end of the third quarter. At the end of the game, to be able to ice it out running and throwing (is big). It's not a time to get conservative. It's a time to make first downs."
Luck bounced back with a solid performance after a rough game a week earlier. The game and his performance was substance over sizzle.
"The Bills, credit them, they're a tough team. They make it nasty, they make it tough, good defensive players," said Luck. "When we needed it most, guys took it upon their own shoulders as an offense and we got it done. I'm just glad great special teams play, and great defense sort of kept us in it.
"I think that (87-yard drive) was definitely our best of the game and it ended with a touchdown. We need more of those drives. I realize that, as an offense, we realize that. When we needed it most, we got that drive and ended it with a four-minute (possession). We understand the position we're in (at 7-4), but again, nothing has been accomplished yet."
Turning point: It came early and set a tone where a late comeback was not necessary. T.Y. Hilton's 75-yard punt return to open the scoring was the club's first such play since 2007, and it provided a cushion. He bookended the play with a scoring reception to start the second half, tallying two touchdowns for the second straight game and becoming the first Colts player ever to score via a reception and punt return in the same game.
*Moment to remember: *Chuck Pagano emerged from a suite with Owner and CEO Jim Irsay in the second half and waved to the crowd, tapping his heart in thanks to fans everywhere for their support during his illness. "I couldn't be prouder of the football team because Chuck was here," said Arians. "The goal was to make him smile when he left, and I'm sure he's up there smiling."
Note: Reggie Wayne had eight receptions for 102 yards, his 41st career 100-plus game. Wayne set the NFL record with a 59th straight game with at least three receptions, surpassing Cris Carter's mark. Luck tied Sam Bradford for the most wins (seven) by a top overall pick since 1970. Pat McAfee continued a spectacular season with five punts for a 51.2 average, including two inside the 20. McAfee had punts to the Buffalo one- and eight-yard lines, the second one coming late in the first half. It resulted in a half-ending field goal by Adam Vinatieri after a defensive stop.
*Quote to note: *"We guide our own destiny. That's the big thing. We don't have to rely on anybody to get a win. Our destiny is in our hands. We have to continue to do what we do, keep stacking wins. All we want is an opportunity to be in the hunt. All of our dreams are still alive." – Cory Redding
Game 12: COLTS 35, DETROIT 33
The Colts reached December only to hear Arians offer a challenge. He said the stakes of competition were going up and that Chuck Pagano's 7-4 team had better realize that if it wanted to continue its quest for a playoff berth.
Arians also pointed out what truly is remembered by fans is not what happens early in a season, but what happens in December. Additionally, Arians challenged young players, particularly his rookie receivers, that a great deal of growth can occur between Thanksgiving and Christmas and that he expected to see results.
Colts players had been attentive all year, just sometimes it took four quarters to get the job done. That was the case in December's first game. Indianapolis needed a full 60 minutes, literally, to beat Detroit.
A talented 4-7 Lions team was on the way to a 4-12 finish, but they nearly topped the Colts. Detroit turned a 7-3 first-quarter deficit into a 23-14 halftime lead, and it looked like the Colts were on the ropes.
The Lions had 256 yards at the half, with Matthew Stafford hitting 17-of-28 passes for 213 yards and a score, including eight completions to Calvin Johnson for 84 yards.
While Andrew Luck had nine completions for 174 yards and two touchdowns, he had two interceptions. Worse, the Colts had only 14 rushing yards on seven attempts.
It was time for the Colts' offense to be more two-dimensional. Opening the third quarter, Vick Ballard rushed for three, 13, seven and four yards and from the Detroit 11, he burst across with the team's second-longest scoring run of the season. Indianapolis had drawn within 23-21.
The scoring pace settled down, but Detroit added 10 points while the Colts punted on four straight possessions after the touchdown, then Luck was picked off with 6:40 to go in the game.
What happened in the final 4:02 was remarkable – Indianapolis drove 85 and 75 yards for touchdowns to get a pulsating 35-33 win.
Luck converted a fourth down with 3:29 to go with an eight-yard rush. Two completions got Indianapolis to the Detroit 42, where Luck rifled a scoring pass to leaping rookie LaVon Brazill. There was 2:39 to play.
Getting possession at their 25 with 1:07 to go and with no timeouts, Luck scrambled for nine yards and hit Wayne for 26. After spiking the ball, Luck raced 16 yards to the Detroit 24 with 29 seconds left. He hit Dwayne Allen for 10 yards to the 14 with 18 seconds left. Three incompletions took the clock down to three seconds.
On the final play, Luck moved in the pocket and hit Donnie Avery crossing underneath the defense. Avery ran untouched into the end zone to complete the 14-yard scoring play. It was the team's fifth fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drive of the year.
"Avery was (the fifth option)," said Arians. "We had basically spread everybody across the back of the end zone and ran Donnie (Avery) across the field as an outlet. It was a great play by Andrew getting out of there, scanning the field. They were, all the receivers, going left and Donnie was coming back right."
Luck credited Arians for situational work on the day prior to the game, actually working the team on a game-ending scenario that showed up almost exactly the next day. Dwayne Allen noted it, too.
"The four-minute drive, then the two-minute drive, we work that in practice so when it comes to those situations, Coach Arians just tells us, 'Work the process. We've been here before. You guys know what to do. Continue to work the process, and we'll be successful,' " said Allen. "All we have to do is work the process. That's what we have done.
"If you show me your most resilient guy in the NFL, I will introduce you to my quarterback, Andrew Luck. He has something that keeps him cool, calm and collected. Pressure situations, it amazes me what he can do. I've never been around a quarterback with that amount of resilience to play the game he plays. He goes through the ups and downs of the rollercoaster, then still be able to take the deep breath, tell everyone to shut up in the huddle and, 'Let's go win this.' "
In a season of grit, the offensive line was stellar at Detroit. Jeff Linkenbach entered at left guard after three plays when Joe Reitz was concussed. Linkenbach moved to right tackle late in the game when Winston Justice was hurt. A.Q. Shipley entered for Linkenbach at left guard, and the Colts completed their comeback with the patchwork unit. The team had to use every healthy lineman available.
"Our guys are fighters, man. They're resilient. They don't quit. They believe next man up," said Arians. "We were down to no offensive lineman left and A.Q. (Shipley) went in and played his tail off at guard. Guys kept stepping up, offensively, defensively. Guys jumped in that we just learned their names Wednesday, played special teams. We find a way to win."
Turning point: Two red zone stops were pivotal in the outcome. After a second-quarter interception, Detroit started at the Colts' 20. The Colts forced a three-and-out, limiting the damage to a field goal. A 20-14 deficit could have been worse. Detroit upped its advantage to 30-21 with two seconds left in the third quarter and with 10:28 left in the game, the Lions had a long run to the Indianapolis 13. Again, the Colts held for a field goal. The two ensuing touchdown drives to win the game were made possible by the defense. A third pivotal time came with 2:29 remaining. After a pass interference call gave Detroit a first down at its 44, the Colts held again. A final timeout and the two-minute warning provided a last Indianapolis drive from its 25 with 1:07 to go.
Moment to remember: Detroit's Joique Bell burst 67 yards and was bound for the end zone when he was stopped by Cassius Vaughn at the Indianapolis 13 with 10 minutes to go in a nine-point game. The Colts held tight deep in their territory, forcing a field goal. "We tried to run to the ball no matter what," said Vaughn. "The ball was still in play. If you break out, we'll be back there to stop it. That's a four-point swing. That's the little part of the game."
*Note: *Indianapolis finished with 87 yards on 18 rushes after having 14 yards at the half. It marked the fifth time in 2012 the team had less than 50 yards at intermission, but the third contest where it stayed committed on the ground and had a comeback win. Indianapolis had 22 first-half yards on 11 attempts against Miami, but gained 97 yards in a 23-20 victory. The Colts had 49 yards on 10 rushes at Tennessee, but produced 171 yards in the 19-13 overtime victory. The Colts now held a 7-1 record in games decided by seven points or less. This marked the first game since September 30, 1990 the Colts won a game with a last-play touchdown. Jack Trudeau was the last Colts QB to throw a game-ending scoring pass. Luck had 391 yards and four touchdowns, setting the club rookie record for single-game touchdowns and increasing his NFL mark with a sixth 300 game. Luck also surpassed Sam Bradford to become the first top overall pick since 1966 to record eight starting victories. T.Y. Hilton had six receptions for 100 yards, setting the new club rookie record with a fourth 100 game. Coby Fleener (26 yards) and LaVon Brazill (42) had their first career scoring receptions on a banner day for the club's draft picks. Donnie Avery had his second career multiple-touchdown game. Adam Vinatieri (683) moved past Lenny Moore (678) for fourth-place in Colts career scoring.
*Quote to note: *"It's December, the price of poker has gone up." – Bruce Arians