As chilly as it was outside in Cincinnati, inside the Colts' locker room it was much colder following their 34-14 Week 14 loss to the Bengals.
While the entire team was disappointed, it was the defensive players who mostly shouldered the blame for the loss following an uncharacteristically poor outing from them.
The Bengals' 34 points were the most that the unit had allowed since their Week 8 38-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints. They also allowed 385 total yards, a figure that was only topped by the Saints' 511 since late October.
"I feel like it's on us as leaders to keep the team grounded and keep our understanding that, when you're playing capable teams late in the year, the games mean more, the execution means more and we got to play to the level we know we gotta play to the level that we know we're able to play at," linebacker Zaire Franklin said immediately after the game. "I don't think we did that today on any phase and we just gotta be better."
So, with the Pittsburgh Steelers coming to town six days later, how did the Colts respond?
They held the opposition to just 13 points and 216 total yards.
The defense's performance against the run was one of the best in the season. With the Steelers gaining just 74 rushing yards, it was the first time the Colts held an adversary to less than 75 rushing yards since they held the Houston Texans to 52 yards in Week 2.
"[That game] showed a lot man," defensive tackle Grover Stewart said. "All around the NFL - don't try to run the ball on the Colts' defensive line. We're gonna get you. We're gonna stop you. We're gonna try our best to stop you."
They also forced three turnovers, the most they've had since picking off three passes against the Carolina Panthers in Week 9.
"It's a long season. There are going to be games where plays here or there – like we said, the screens were a big issue in the Cincinnati game. To see us come back, Pittsburgh tried a couple screens and Zaire (Franklin) almost picked the one," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "I think it shows improvement by the guys. I think that they're – we were always capable of doing it so it's good to see. If you have issues the previous week, the next week teams – it's a copy-cat league, and that we played them pretty well."
As one would imagine, the disposition of the locker room was much sunnier following that game, especially among defensive players.
Happy to see the unit back to playing the way he knows they're capable of, safety Julian Blackmon said now it's their job to keep it up.
"You don't want to look at last week and think that's who we are," Blackmon said after the game. "We got to find ways to find repetitive success, especially this week. Getting this win – the stakes get higher as we keep playing. So, it's good to win, but the job is not finished, you know? So, we want to continue to find ways to feel like this all the time."
To keep the good times rolling and help strengthen their chances of making the playoffs, the Colts will have to handle their business against the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday. While their overall offensive statistics may not be imposing, their strength happens to be the Colts' Achilles heel, running the ball.
This season, they're ninth in the NFL in average rushing yards per game (126.4), third in rushing play percentage (48.73) and eighth in explosive runs (49).
Aware of the Falcons' proclivity to run the ball, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner knows that the Colts will have their work out for them. However, riding high off of last week's performance, Buckner said he thinks his group will be up for the task.
"Last week instilled confidence in the defense knowing we can stop the run like we've been knowing we [we could]," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "But then, also having an important personnel back like Grover, you know what I'm saying? Having Grove back in the mix really helps out, especially in the middle because the defensive ends are doing a good job of setting edges. The linebackers are doing a really good job coming downhill. So, it's everybody doing their jobs, doing their part, trusting one another, keeping our gap integrity and keep on stacking each and every week."
In addition to having to worry about the threat of the run, the defense also has to account for the Falcons' change at quarterback. For the second time this season, quarterback Desmond Ridder was benched by the team, meaning that the reins were turned over to veteran Taylor Heinicke.
In his three appearances this season, he's thrown for 498 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. In his two starts, the Falcons have gone 0-2.
Last season, the Colts saw what Heinicke could do firsthand when he was the starter for the Washington Commanders.
In their Week 8 matchup, Heinicke led the Commanders to a 17-16 win over the Colts. In that game, he completed 74.2 percent of his passes, threw for 279 yards along with a touchdown and an interception. Late in the game, he completed a 33-yard pass to wide receiver Terry McLaurin that set the offense up at the Colts' one-yard line. On the very next play, Heinicke punched the ball into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
"He plays like he has nothing to lose," Buckner said. "He loves to extend plays. He'll take his shots down the field when he can. The guy does a great job for whatever team he's playing for, you know? He's stepping up and stepping in and making plays for them.
"He's won games, he's won some big games in his career. So yeah, I mean it's the same guy that we saw last year. But this time, it's gonna be a different outcome."