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Colts' collective belief again shines in win over Titans – and in AFC playoff race

Just like they have all season, the Colts were tested on Sunday in Nashville. And just like they have all season, the Colts relied on something that continues to fuel their playoff push. 

NASHVILLE – It's hard to know where to start with a game as wild as the Colts' 31-28 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Nissan Stadium.

Gardner Minshew II's 55-yard strike to Alec Pierce and his ensuing walkoff touchdown to Michael Pittman Jr. are a good starting point.

Or what about the Colts blocking consecutive punts in the second half?

Or the Colts' defensive line continuing to wreak havoc with six sacks?

Maybe, then, we should zoom out and take a broader view of the Colts' Week 13 win. And that big picture takeaway: The 2023 Colts believe.

This isn't some Ted Lasso storyline. It takes more than belief to win. But: This team believes in Shane Steichen and his coaching staff to put them in the best positions to win. They believe in their teammates and themselves to execute on gameday. They believe in the work they put in on weekdays will pay off on Sunday.

And, more importantly, they have proof of concept: They believe they can win any game, no matter how crazy, how challenging, how chaotic things may get over 60 (or more) minutes.

"It's just guys believing," Steichen said. "I mean, you hear that word a lot and it's true. If you believe every time you go out that you're gonna win a football game, no matter what the circumstances are, no matter what the situation is, you keep fighting and you keep going and you find ways at the end. If you believe you're gonna win, you're gonna go out there and win the game."

This is, then, a good starting point for explaining not only how the heck the Colts won that game in Nashville, but how they're 7-5 and control their playoff destiny with five games to go in the regular season.

"It's just the level of commitment," wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. "I feel like everybody's just bought in and we just don't ever quit."

This sort of collective belief is one of those inscrutable things that can't be quantified, but tends to separate playoff contenders between Thanksgiving and New Year's. It's not just Minshew hitting Pierce – who averaged two receptions and 27 yards per game entering Week 13 – in a key moment. It's not just the defensive line having more than five sacks in three consecutive games (the longest streak in the NFL this season). It's not just Brian Mason's special teams units delivering game-changing plays.

It's all of it, working in concert with each other. It's produced four consecutive wins. It matters, especially in games like that one.

"We proved to ourselves that we can stick together and we can come out on top no matter what situation we have," linebacker EJ Speed said.

When the Titans went up 17-7 in the first half with running backs Derrick Henry and Tyjae Spears carving out 116 yards on 22 first half carries, the front seven steeled itself and held those two backs to 3.4 yards per carry in the second half (Henry exited the game with a concussion early in the fourth quarter). And with the Titans' run game muted, the Colts' defensive line continued to show themselves as an impeccable, dominant front in the league. 

The Colts sacked Titans quarterback Will Levis six times, bringing their season total to 42 sacks – the second-most in the NFL, and four shy of the team's Indianapolis-era record set in 2005. 

"We were just having some self-inflicted wounds and beating ourselves," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "The second half, guys stepped up, the defense stepped up and there were times where we needed the offense to step up and they did, and special teams came up big with two blocked punts. It was a great team effort in all three phases."

Those two blocked punts (well, technically one – Tony Brown's was ruled a forced fumble since Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse didn't even get the punt off before Brown blew up the play) shifted momentum in the second half, and made a significant impact on the outcome of Sunday's game

And when the Colts needed a play to avoid a loss or tie in overtime, Minshew stepped up in a clean pocket and found Pierce downfield for 55 yards; a few plays later, he found Pittman for the Colts' first and only red zone touchdown of the game.

"Being able to see the grit in the team and the guys that we have being able to dig deep in OT, come up with those big plays to finish — we always preach about finishing tight games," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "It's been awesome to see."

The Colts have needed to dig deep and show grit and resilience all year, both in games (like Week 3's overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens and Week 10's win over the New England Patriots in Frankfurt) and with losses of players (like having starting quarterback Anthony Richardson sustain a season-ending injury, having running back Jonathan Taylor miss time, losing defensive tackle Grover Stewart to a six-game suspension and bidding farewell to linebacker Shaquille Leonard). 

And that reservoir of belief the Colts can draw upon when they need it during games only gets deeper with wins like Sunday's over the Titans. 

"Winning those close games in crazy situations, it does nothing but bring us closer," Speed said. "We're right here in the home stretch of this season and we're just going to keep riding the wave."

The Colts will enter Week 14 holding the AFC's seventh and final playoff spot as one of four teams with a 7-5 record, joining the Pittsburgh Steelers (5th in the AFC), Cleveland Browns (6th) and Houston Texans (8th). There's still plenty to be decided over the final five weeks of the 2023 season, especially with dates looming against the Steelers (Week 15) and Texans (Week 18).

But as the Colts control their playoff destiny, they'll do so with the sort of mentality that'll give them a chance every week – and give them a chance to continue pushing to play postseason ball into January. 

"Resiliency — when you fight through adversity like that on both sides of the ball, special teams coming up huge," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "Man, these type of wins feel great, especially on the road."

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