INDIANAPOLIS – Through the first six games of the 2011 season, the Colts have had opportunities to succeed.
The inability to thrive in small, key moments has plagued the season to this point, but 10 games remain for the club to correct its ways and play to its capabilities.
On Sunday at Cincinnati, Indianapolis battled to a stalemate through the game's first 24 minutes. The Bengals, however, mounted a late drive that resulted in a half-ending field goal. What mattered also for the Colts in that moment, though, was the defense stiffened on a first-and-goal situation in the final seconds to limit the score to three points.
It was the second straight game the team surrendered points just prior to intermission. Kansas City scored a late touchdown the previous week to cut a Colts lead to 24-14, and Indianapolis was not able to wrestle momentum in their favor afterward.
Yesterday, Cincinnati used a 10-point third quarter to build its lead, but Indianapolis countered with 52- and 74-yard marches that produced 10 points. The game stood 20-17 in Cincinnati's favor with 9:33 remaining in the game. The outcome, very much, hung in the balance.
The Indianapolis defense produced two three-and-outs in the final quarter and the second stand gave Indianapolis possession at its 40-yard line with 7:36 remaining. The Colts moved for a tying field goal attempt with 5:43 to go, but a 52-yard attempt failed because of an execution issue.
The club had one final possession with the score remaining at 20-17, but wide receiver Pierre Garcon was stripped of the ball following a first-down reception and Cincinnati returned the fumble 35 yards for the game's final points. In desperation mode with 2:18 left, the Colts were intercepted and the final hope for Indianapolis was extinguished.
The four previous weeks for the club featured setbacks by eight, three, seven and four points, with every game in doubt in the final quarter.
It is well-chronicled that in the club's fast starts in previous seasons (13-0 in 2005; 9-0 in 2006; 7-0 in 2007; 14-0 in 2009), it was not nearly as much about dominant performances as it was about being dominant in key moments. In other words, the team was adept at grabbing chips at clutch times when the chips were on the table.
"One of the things you always want to be able to do is be in position to have a chance," said Head Coach Jim Caldwell. "That's what it boils down to in this game, particularly in this league. We had some opportunities, we just have to take advantage of them. The chips are on the table. Most of those times in those (past) situations where we've had a last opportunity where the chips were on the table, we usually came through and collected them. We usually executed very well, made a play down the stretch that made a difference. We just haven't done that, but there's a lot of football ahead of us."
Caldwell-coached teams have been adept at making key plays when outcomes are in doubt. Half of the team's 14 wins to start the 2009 season were decided by four points or less, with three of those seven decided by two points or less.
Many of the victories that season involved comeback theatrics. November of that season was a 5-0 month that saw Indianapolis make play-after-play. The Colts rallied from behind to beat San Francisco (18-14), Houston (20-17), New England (35-34) and Baltimore (17-15) to become the first NFL team to win four consecutive games in the same season by a total margin of 10-or-fewer points, and four straight wins after trailing at any point in the fourth quarter set a new NFL record. Indianapolis closed November of 2009 by scoring 28 second-half points after a 17-0 second-quarter deficit to win at Houston, 35-27.
It was a 5-0 month that was dramatic because of four or five key plays that were made in each game when the outcome was in doubt. The performances were not dominant in least. The results were products of performing in tight situations when it mattered the most.
During Caldwell's first two seasons, the club was 20-2 in games it led at the half and 16-0 in games it led after three quarters. The records this year are 0-3 and 0-2 in those respective situations.
Caldwell keenly is aware that nothing from the past counts in the present, but he is just as firm in knowing the team's players and the coaches will keep the focus on executing every play to try to control key moments in future games. He thinks the veteran nature of all involved will help.
"I think so because of the fact these guys have been around here for a while," said Caldwell. "Our veterans have to be able to lead the way, there's no question about that. Typically they understand and particularly where we are right now, we have our backs against the wall, it usually crystallizes for us, and that's what we're counting on."
Ryan Diem returned at Cincinnati to start at right tackle. Diem had opened at right guard in the first two games this year before missing three outings with an ankle injury. Diem cites the importance of protecting the ball and helping the defense thrive.
"I think it is about eliminating mistakes. That is the issue," said Diem. "We don't have a real big margin for error at this point. Any little slip up is going to cost us dearly. We have to take advantage of every opportunity we get. We can't let them (opponents) create turnovers. We can't put our defense in a tough position. I still think it's things we are doing to ourselves. Once we eliminate those mistakes, we'll turn it around."
Safety Antoine Bethea has been the true veteran presence in a secondary that has been hit with injuries. Bethea wants the team to keep working hard to influence outcomes that can be won.
"It's a couple of plays each game that defines the game," said Bethea. "In the past, we've been on the other side of those plays. We were getting those interceptions. We were getting the caused fumbles. Right now, we're not getting that. The more we continue to harp on them, harp on them (making the key play) we'll be fine. We just have to run to the ball and do fundamental things."
Caldwell knows this Sunday's game in New Orleans will be a challenge like all games are in the NFL. He has seen his troops respond in these moments before, and the club will prepare to meet a talented opponent.
"The good thing is we have some mature guys. The situation we're in right now, we're not worried about anything other than the fact of getting the next win," said Caldwell. "We're worried about the next game coming up. We're not worried about the future or forecasts or whatever might be. Typically when the chips are on the table, our guys have always found a way to get it to go in their favor, to collect those chips, make some plays down the stretch. That's what we have to get back to…It's going to be a tough challenge. It's a good football team. We're playing them at their place. We have our work cut out for us."