Colts Rally for Fifth Consecutive Close-Fought November Victory
CLEVELAND, Ohio – This is getting familiar. Very familiar.
And for the Colts, even if that familiarity is not a particularly stress-free thing, the results through a tight, nail-biting November have been exactly what they hoped.
And the result Sunday was strikingly similar to what it has been in recent weeks:
An early deficit.
A big play or two here or there.
A close, hard-fought victory.
The Colts (8-4), who struggled offensively nearly the entire game and trailed throughout much of it, took their first lead on a fourth-quarter defensive touchdown, rallying for a 10-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns (4-8) in front of 72,411 on a gray, windy wet afternoon in Cleveland Stadium.
"It was a big win for us," said Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy, who ensured his 12th consecutive season as a head coach with a record of .500 or better. "They're all tough to get and it seems like every time we come here, it comes down to the last play and it's a tight game.
"I thought we had a lot of guys step up today and a lot of guys make big plays when we needed them."
Robert Mathis, the Colts' sixth-year veteran defensive end, returned a fourth-quarter fumble by Browns quarterback Derek Anderson 37 yards for the game's only touchdown with 9:45 remaining to give the Colts their first lead. Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney forced the fumble with his team-leading eighth sack of the season.
That made it 10-6, and the Browns never threatened again.
"Coach Dungy always says, 'The difference in the NFL between each team is like that much,''' said Mathis, holding his finger and thumb inches apart. "Whoever makes that key play at crunch time is pretty much going to win most of the time."
The victory gave the Colts, who lost their final two games in October to slip to 3-4, a 5-0 record in November, with three of the victories coming on the road – at San Diego, at Pittsburgh and at Cleveland – and all five coming by six points or less.
The Colts rallied to win all six games.
"How about that one?" Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said with a shake of his head after he completed 15 of 21 passes for 125 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions for a passer rating of 46.8. "Our defense won the game for us. . . .
"Defensively, we made a play in the fourth quarter. That was enough to win the game. Obviously, everybody wants to get better, but offensively, we need to play much better next week."
Said Dungy, "That's what winning football's all about. You get it from different guys. The key is to come away with a win and we've done that in November."
The Colts managed just 215 yards total offense, 14 first downs and committed three turnovers. They also drove to the Browns 1 and turned it over on downs with less than two minutes remaining in the first half.
Defensively, the Colts limited Cleveland to 193 yards and forced two turnovers, each of which came in the fourth quarter.
"Every game is a playoff game," Mathis said. "We have no room for error because of our shortfalls early in the season. We're pretty much in catch-up mode. We're on a roll. We're just trying to keep it going and not have any slipups or whatever.
"If we just keep playing team ball, we'll be all right."
Said Colts safety Antoine Bethea, "It's November and December. Toward the end of the season, we're out there fighting. If it comes down to the end, we have to hang in there and continue to fight. In the long run, it might help us out a little bit."
The game was yet another close, defensive struggle against Cleveland, and yet another Colts victory in the series.
The Colts won their last meeting against the Browns, 13-6, in the second game of the 2005 regular season, and they won their last visit to Cleveland, 9-6, in the 2003 season opener.
The 2003 opener was the last time Indianapolis was held without an offensive touchdown in the regular season.
"They do a good job of making you be patient," Dungy said. "They played very well on defense today."
Veteran kicker Phil Dawson gave the Browns a 3-0 lead with a 34-yard field goal early in the first quarter. Cornerback Eric Wright set up a 30-yard drive by recovering a fumble by Colts running back Joseph Addai on the game's first play from scrimmage.
The Colts tied it on the ensuing possession, with kicker Adam Vinatieri converting a 30-yard field goal with 1:58 remaining in the quarter.
In the second quarter, the Colts again fell behind by a field goal, and this time, they passed up a chance to tie it again. As a result, they trailed by three points entering halftime.
The Browns took a 6-3 lead with a 25-yard field goal by Dawson with 7:35 remaining in the second quarter.
The Colts then drove from their 33 to the Browns 1, but defensive back Brodney Pool stopped a sneak by Manning, whose fumble was recovered by Colts tight end Dallas Clark in the end zone. Under NFL rules, a fumble in the final two minutes cannot be advanced by the offense unless the fumbling player recovers, so the touchdown was negated.
With a chance to extend the Browns' lead to six, Dawson missed a 34-yard field goal with 9:56 remaining in the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive, the Colts drove to the Browns 28 before Vinatieri missed a 46-yard attempt.
And although the Colts continued to struggle offensively, the defense forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter. Mathis returned the fumble for the game-winning touchdown, and Bethea intercepted a pass from reserve quarterback Ken Dorsey to end the Browns' final possession with less than a minute remaining.
"We said after we lost to Tennessee (in late October), that all of these AFC games would be imant," Dungy said. "Because of our tiebreaker situation, we couldn't afford to lose any. (We knew) most of these guys (November opponents) would be in the playoff hunt with us. It just seems like week in and week out, they've been tight games, a lot of them on the road. I think our young guys have gotten a feel for what it's going to be like in the playoffs.
"We have to continue to win. What this November run did for us was set us up, put in position. We don't have to rely on anybody else. We can go into December knowing if we win our games, we're in. That's a good feeling.
"Playing that way, and playing pressure games, I think it is going to be good for us."
Said Manning, "It's kind of what you expect coming in. We're not playing at full strength. At some point, we have to get (two-time Pro Bowl safety) Bob (Sanders) back out there. I know (three-time Pro Bowl center) Jeff (Saturday) was going to try to go this week. He'll be chomping at the bit. He's a true warrior. Hopefully, we can get our guys back in December, but until we do, you kind of anticipate these close games. You to find a way to make the play in the fourth quarter.
"We've made those plays in different ways. Offensively against the Chargers last week we made the play. Today, it was the defense's turn to step up and make the play. That's why it's football. That's why you play as a team and that's what you have to have.
"That's what we anticipate from here on out. I don't care who we're playing, where we're playing. They're going to be four-quarter games. Hopefully, we can make the four or five plays that decide the games. That's what the games come down to."