DENVER – Frank Reich wasn't in the mood to be critique his team's offense in the immediate aftermath of the Colts' 12-9 win over the Denver Broncos Thursday night at Empower Field at Mile High.
"Isn't it awesome that you can have a game like that and still win?" Reich said. "It really is. I'm really happy that we made the plays against a good defense. This is a really good defense, so we played well enough on offense to win the game today.
"It wasn't good, we didn't play good offense, so I'm not going to be critical of the offense right now. We know we need to get better. We won the game; these are hard to win on the road on Thursday night. ... This is a win. We'll figure out how to get better on offense, but we played good enough to get the win tonight."
That critique will come as coaches and players review the film from a game in which the Colts didn't score a touchdown, managed 4.2 yards per play and converted four of 16 third downs. Of course the Colts, collectively, acknowledge the need to play better on offense. But in the early hours of Friday morning, this was a win the team earned the right to enjoy.
"It shows we can win in the hardest way possible," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "It shows the type of grit that we have, and it's a good foundation that we can build off."
The Colts and Broncos combined for 27 possessions on Thursday, and only two ended in the end zone – first, when Stephon Gilmore picked off Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter; second, when Gilmore swatted away Wilson's fourth-and-one pass in overtime. All week – well, for about three days – the Colts heard about the Broncos' top-five defense. That understanding of their opponent's strength had a two-pronged effect: First, the Colts knew they'd probably have to win a grind-it-out, close, low-scoring game; second, Gus Bradley's defense took it as a challenge.
"Coming into the game we all understood what type of game it was going to be," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "We know it's gonna be a defensive battle. When I in college, our defensive coordinator used to tell us, you want to be the top dog, and you want to be the best defense on the field.
"So coming in, you're hearing everything about how their defense is top five and all the guys they got. We got guys too."
Those guys, on Thursday night:
- Gilmore: Game-sealing PBU and game-shifting interception
- Buckner: Two sacks, two QB hits, one TFL, one pass break-up, one forced fumble
- Franklin: Nine tackles (tie for team-high)
- Bobby Okereke: Nine tackles, one TFL
- Rodney Thomas II: One interception, one pass break-up (and one potential interception wiped out by an official getting in his way)
- Kenny Moore II: One critical pass break-up in the end zone, plus two tackles for a loss/no gain
- Yannick Ngakoue: 1 1/2 sacks, plus two QB hits and one TFL
- Dayo Odeyingbo: 1/2 of a sack split with Ngakoue, which cleaned up a well-timed blitz by safety Rodney McLeod Jr.
- Grover Stewart: More menacing run defense, plus a blocked field goal
- Byron Cowart: One tackle for no gain
- Kwity Paye (who left the game with an ankle injury): One QB hit
- Chris Williams: One QB hit
"Guys knew it was gonna be a dogfight," Buckner said. "We knew they had a top five defense. We knew what we had to do — we had to show up, and guys did. Guys made plays when we needed to."
The Colts held the Broncos to 2/15 on third down and 0/4 in the red zone. Franklin and Moore both pointed to the work the Colts put in leading up to the game – on a short week – to identify and defend Denver's tendencies, especially in the red zone.
So while Denver entered the night with the NFL's fifth-best scoring defense (17 points per game), the Colts' defense didn't just match the Broncos' defense – they exceeded it.
"Man, you give us an inch, we'll defend it," Stewart said. "Everybody put everything on the line."
On offense, the Colts found themselves in plenty of third-and-longs where Denver's athletic pass rush could get after quarterback Matt Ryan. Of the Colts' 16 third down plays, 13 were at least six yards short of the sticks; Ryan was sacked six times for a total loss of 51 yards.
But the Colts won a game without scoring a touchdown for just the 12th time since moving to Indianapolis, and the first time since the 2006 AFC Divisional Round (a 15-6 win over the Baltimore Ravens). Ryan, leaning on rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce and some key plays by running back Deon Jackson, led the 36th fourth quarter comeback of his career, then set Chase McLaughlin up for the go-ahead (and ultimately game-winning) field goal in overtime.
"I thought the two drives at the end showed a lot of guts," Ryan said. "Alec made some awesome plays for us tonight, and that's huge for his development as a player."
And after the game, the message wasn't about the struggles the offense had against a strong Broncos defense. Those messages will be delivered Friday, when the adrenaline of Thursday night wore off and a critical eye will be turned to the Week 5 tape.
The message was that, with this win, all the Colts' goals are still ahead of them at 2-2-1 through five games.
"We found a way," Ryan said. "And with the young group we have, particularly we had a lot of young players playing tonight, there's belief that gets created, even though it's ugly. There's belief that gets created when you find a way to get the job done. And that's what we've got to do right now. We've got to figure out how to get better, there's no doubt about that, and try to play better, more consistent football. But you gotta win games. You gotta find ways to win games and I'm proud of the guys."
The Colts take on the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football at Empower Field at Mile High.