Facing a third-and-nine at the 14-yard line with a two-point lead midway through the fourth quarter on Christmas night against the Arizona Cardinals, Carson Wentz delivered one of his finest plays of the 2021 season.
The Cardinals rushed three and, with no one initially open against a 24-yard strip of grass flooded with defensive backs, Wentz bought time by scrambling to his left. He kept his eyes downfield and Dezmon Patmon flashed open in the end zone. Wentz contorted his body to make a difficult, high-stakes throw to his receiver deep into paydirt.
Instead of settling for a field goal, the Colts picked up seven points and turned a one-score game into a two-possession game. Wentz, by the way, tweaked Patmon's route when meeting with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady a day or two before the game.
And in the process, Wentz made good on a promise his head coach made earlier in the week.
"For us to go where we are going to want to go, I think there are going to be games where Carson will be the 'star of the game,'" Reich said "I think that will have to happen."
It did in Arizona.
But it also didn't happen in a vacuum.
Wentz threw the ball no more than 2.5 seconds after the snap on 13 of his 14 throws in the first 30 minutes, according to Pro Football Focus. But Wentz gained only 73 yards on those plays (5.6 yards/attempt) as Arizona's speedy defense flew around to make tackles and limit the efficiency of those quick game throws.
But while the Colts' strategy for Wentz to get the ball out quick with an offensive line made up of 80 percent reserves led to completions in the first half, it didn't in the third quarter – in which he completed only three of eight passes with a time to throw of under 2.5 seconds.
"You never lose confidence," Wentz said. "You have to give them credit on some of those, making things look confusing or doing some different things. Missing some throws for sure at the same time, but at the same time, I have to stay confident in myself.
"Coaches do a great job of setting me up to succeed as well with the play calling always helping that out as well, so you just can't get down on yourself."
And that's where Reich's past experience – and, now, 15 games of it with the Colts – seemed to come in handy on Saturday night.
Before the season, Reich said those years he spent with Wentz in Philadelphia should help him know what the "danger spots" are with the quarterback for "when he gets in a rut." It happens to all quarterbacks. But Reich knows how to pull Wentz out of those in-game ruts.
"In the middle there, had a bad series or two where we missed a couple of throws that were uncharacteristic, but we just said, 'We're good, we're good,'" Reich said. "We just kind of keep trying to find some completions. We try to move him in the pocket, stuff like that to just kind of get a rhythm. He's our guy. He's already proven time and time again. I've seen it before."
So early in the fourth quarter, while the Colts held on to a 15-13 lead, Reich told his coaching staff: "Carson will make plays to win this game in the fourth quarter."
Wentz erased a holding flag on Danny Pinter with a 20-yard strike to an open Michael Pittman Jr. Two plays later, he found T.Y. Hilton for an explosive 39-yard gain. And three plays after that, he hit Patmon for a massive touchdown in the scope of the Colts' season.
"Tonight, they forced us to pass it," Hilton said. "And we got a quarterback in Carson who can make all the plays. He showed that tonight. We got a ton of ways to beat you."
The teams that often find the most success in December and January that ones that can win games in multiple ways. The Colts are showing some of those signs – whether it's through Jonathan Taylor or Wentz on offense, or through a smothering defensive effort, or through a big play or two from Bubba Ventrone's special teams, the Colts have solutions in all three phases to win games.
Wentz's big-time showing when the Colts needed him most against the Cardinals is yet another encouraging development for a team with a strong grip on a spot in the playoffs with two games remaining.
"I think it is just extra fun, obviously, it's Christmas, and we're all away from our families and all those things, but just the way we did it," Wentz said. "The way we hung together, nobody flinched. There were so many other guys that had to step up. So many guys, key backups in the depth, really came through tonight, and I think it just made it that much extra special."