Colts' Strengthen Grip On AFC Playoff Spot With Win Over Patriots But Aren't Done Yet: 'This Counts For One, That's It'

The Colts' 27-17 win over the AFC No. 1 seed New England Patriots was a comprehensive win with contributions from offense, defense and special teams. But Frank Reich and this team aren't letting off the gas with another major test on the horizon next weekend. 

Jonathan Taylor ran faster than anyone else – literally – on his way to a 67-yard touchdown, which put an emphatic end to the Colts' nine-game losing streak against the New England Patriots and, more importantly, strengthened his team's grip on a playoff spot with three weeks remaining in the 2021 regular season.

The Colts' 27-17 win over the Patriots on Saturday night in front of a raucous crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium could've, perhaps, felt like the culmination of everything Frank Reich's team has built toward over the last few months. It was a collective win against a team coached by arguably the greatest football mind of all time, against a team on a seven-game winning streak, against a team that hadn't allowed more than 13 points in a game since Halloween, against a team that arrived in Indianapolis as the AFC's No. 1 seed.

But the Colts are not done building. They're not, to pivot on metaphors, at the the summit of the mountain Reich has had them climbing all season.

This was a big win, no doubt. But it was just one win. And that's what Reich's message was to his team as Saturday night gave way to Sunday morning in downtown Indianapolis.

"We're the five seed, we got to win every one of these games," Reich said in his postgame press conference. "What we said in there was, hey, this is a great team win but this counts for one. It counts for one, that's it. So, we got to dial it back in and get ready to play against, obviously, the best team in the NFL next Saturday."

Yes, the Colts – who just got done playing what may be the AFC's best team – now have to prepare for one of, if not the, best teams in the entire league: The Arizona Cardinals, who enter Week 15 with a 10-3 record and real shot at the NFC's No. 1 seed. Unlike so many Midwestern snowbirds, the Colts are heading to Arizona on Christmas for work. There's no time to bask in the sunny glow of emerging from an intense 60 minutes with one of the biggest home victories in recent memory.

"We understand what goal we have, so we got to continue to go in there, go to work, block out the TV noise — we know what they're going to do, they're going to pump us up, they're going to say we're pretty good right now so we can't buy into that," linebacker Darius Leonard said. "We gotta make sure we keep our head down and keep digging."

That's the right mindset, of course, for an 8-6 team that, while controlling its own destiny for an AFC playoff spot, still has work to do. But how the Colts beat the Patriots for the first time in a dozen years is worth emphasizing, because this team has been building toward a game like this for a while now.

For all those gutting losses early in the season – falling three points short against the Rams, then squandering a 22-3 lead only to lose in overtime to the Ravens, then letting another double-digit lead slip away against the Titans – the Colts always knew the team they had. This is a team with more than enough roster talent and schematic know-how to be a real contender in the AFC. They just hadn't put everything together yet.

But as November flipped to December, and now with an eye on January, the Colts are putting it together. This team stomped the Buffalo Bills by 26 points on the road, then took out a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team in December by 10 points.

Belichick, by the way, entered Saturday having only lost five games in December by 10 or more points since 2001.

So how did the Colts take out a talented, well-coached Patriots side that's had a habit of winning big, late-season games for two decades?

"All three of our coordinators did a great job, coaching staff did a phenomenal job with this game going up against the smartest coach in the history of the game and we went toe to toe," Reich said. "Not only on the field but what we did schematically in all three phases. I think it's fair to say we held our own in that regard as well. So, credit to all three coordinators and our coaching staff."

That's a good starting point. The Colts' coaching staff won in all three phases – offense, defense and special teams.

Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady called a strong game, sparked by a goal-to-go trick play (which, historically, have worked pretty well for Reich against the Patriots) and a slow burn of Taylor runs until he exploded for his game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Colts' defense didn't allow a single point until the first play of the fourth quarter, with defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus dialing up looks that seemed to throw off rookie quarterback Mac Jones, whose trademark accuracy escaped him at times Saturday night.

And then there's Bubba Ventrone's special teams, which scored for a third time this season on a punt – with Matthew Adams deflecting Jake Bailey's punt into the end zone, where E.J. Speed recovered it for his second touchdown of the season.

It's one thing to draw up the right plays; it's another thing for players to execute them. And the Colts executed at a high level – Taylor was magnificent with and without the ball in his hands; Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke each had interceptions; Kenny Moore II led another lock-down day for the back end of the defense; Adams found a weak spot in the Patriots' protection and aggressively attacked it.

And zooming out, the Colts were penalized just twice for 13 yards; the Patriots were hit with eight flags, costing them 50 yards – including three false start penalties thanks to a loud, charged-up, sold-out crowd packing Lucas Oil Stadium.

"If you want to sit down," Moore said, respectfully, of how impressive Colts fans were on Saturday, "don't come here."

But the larger point is one the Colts have been making for weeks: If we don't beat ourselves with turnovers and penalties, we have the squad to beat anybody. That mentality is why Leonard bristled at a question after the Colts lost to the Buccaneers a few weeks ago – the premise of it was the same problems that showed up against Baltimore and Tennessee led to the Colts' coughing up a double-digit lead against Tampa Bay.

They weren't, Leonard said. The problem was the Colts beat themselves against the Buccaneers. Against the Patriots, this team didn't do that – two penalties, one turnover – and the result is what everyone in that locker room expected.

"I kept saying we were continuing to get better and people on the outside looking in weren't seeing the adjustments we were making, and it just continued to show each week and finally everything's clicking, everything's going the right way, (we have) great game plans and (are) going out and executing them," Leonard said. "... We always say, we play clean football, we can be a tough team to beat and that's what we did."

The Colts will leave Week 15 as the AFC's No. 5 seed and, according to FiveThirtyEight's numbers, an 88 percent chance of making the playoffs. This is a squad that absolutely looked like a playoff team on Saturday night – and has for a while now.

But the Colts aren't there yet. They know that. And the climb doesn't get any easier next week in Arizona.

So there's no time to rest now, no matter how impressive it was for this team to reach a not-yet-permanent elevation of the AFC's No. 5 seed.

"With it being December, we all want to challenge each other to play our best games with this last stretch," Moore said. "We don't have any time to make any mistakes or have some games that, oh, we lost this game, we (feel like we) should've had it."

Don't miss any of the action from Saturday Night Football as the Indianapolis Colts host the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium.

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