INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts started off the 2009 season by rattling off 14 consecutive victories.
Some of the margins were large. Some, however, were not. Half of those victories were decided by four points or less. Three of those seven were decided by two points or less.
Many of the victories that season involved comeback theatrics. In fact, the month of November was a high-wire act that saw Indianapolis extricate itself from tight jams that may even have given Harry Houdini pause.
A fourth-quarter touchdown pass by running back Joseph Addai helped the team beat San Francisco by four points. A midfield stop and a missed field goal in the waning seconds after losing a 13-point lead allowed the club to beat Houston, 20-17. Overcoming a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit with 21 late points, including two touchdowns in the final four minutes, led to a 35-34 win over New England. Holding host Baltimore to five field goals and taking the ball away twice in the final three minutes helped the Colts prevail, 17-15. The triumph allowed Indianapolis 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 a dramatic month 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. It may have looked as dominant from afar then as it does now in the history books, but the reality is the team made clutch plays when it mattered the most.
Indianapolis has been competitive in its three recent games, and it has had chances to win each contest.
In week two, the Colts cut a 14-9 third-quarter home deficit to Cleveland to 14-12. The game hung in the balance until the final five minutes when the Browns had a 28-yard touchdown drive to push the margin to double digits in a 27-19 victory.
A week later, Indianapolis took a 13-10 halftime lead into the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. The Colts yielded 10 points, then tied the contest but fell at the gun, 23-20.
Last Monday at Tampa Bay, the Colts opened leads of 10-0 and 17-10 and were ahead much of the way. Tampa Bay tied the contest in the third quarter, then scored with 3:15 remaining to earn the win.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell reminds his team that a handful of key plays typically determine a game, and that is a focus going forward. From weeks one to four, Caldwell does see progress in his team.
"I think we have made some steady progress," said Caldwell. "I think you can see a number of different areas (of improvement). I think the guys have been in every ballgame but one. They've fought, and they've fought extremely hard and (gave) great effort. We've been leading games at halftime, but have not been able to close them out and finish. We've started decently. We've played good defense. We've had some pretty good first halves lately, but we just have to be able to finish it off. If we have a lead, to extend the lead, or to be able to keep them (opponents) at bay (is important). That's something we haven't been able to do yet. All in all, the improvement is great and it's something we will build upon."
With a club battling injuries and with a few new faces sprinkled about, Caldwell does believe the close margins will steel the team's resolve, not hurt it.
"I think so. Our team understands fully there is a very, very thin line between being 0-4 and 4-0," said Caldwell. "We've looked at it that way for years. Even when things were rolling along, we'd always give constant reminders that, 'Hey, look at this. We had to come from behind in the last three games to get a victory. It very easily could have gone the other way.' We did that just to show them how fragile that situation (winning) is. Also, it should give you hope as well, because it shows you how close you are. We're just maybe a handful of plays away from maybe getting this thing turned around and trying to get on some sort of roll."
Kicker Adam Vinatieri has factored positively into a huge number of games decided by small margins throughout his career, many times with last-second field goals. Vinatieri knows the importance of small things winning the close battles.
"With the way football is now and has been for years, the majority of games come down to a margin of a touchdown or less, that's what usually wins games," said Vinatieri. "Teams are so competitive and are so comparable that good teams find a way to make those two or three plays fall in their favor. Unfortunately, we haven't gotten over that hump yet like we did in the past. You never know when the two or three plays over the course of a game are going to come that will decide it. We have to make that play and get those things on our side. For sure, coaches point that out. We just have to do it.
Safety Antoine Bethea has been a part of quite a few key victories in his six years as a starter. Bethea will not stop the fight, and he will take teammates with him.
"Coach Caldwell always talks about there are going to be about six plays per game that really determine the outcome," said Bethea. "Fortunately in the past, we've been on other side of this battle, and we've won. The first game was really the only one we've been out of. The last three games, we have been in it until the end. For the young guys, it goes to show in this league it's a play here or play there that decides it. We will keep on pushing, keep on fighting and we'll get this first win."
Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian has been toughened by years of NFL competition. Polian is one of the most key voices around the team, and he has advice for players.
"You just have to steel yourself to the fact that you have to keep chopping wood, keep doing what you know will be successful and have faith that in the end, things will work out for you," said Polian. "The wheel turns. Really for the last two years the arrow's been pointed at us. Don't forget, we had eight or nine great years before that, so these things have a way of turning around, both pro and con. We're on a little bit of the downside of it right now with injuries, bad luck and things of that nature. It will turn, and you have to be ready when the wheel turns to your number. You have to have put in the work and the effort, and that's what we are doing. You have to keep a resolute frame of mind. We're doing a lot of things very well. You just have to be resolute, compete and go out there every week and say, 'I'm giving it my best. I'm a professional. As long as I do my best, in the long run, everything will come out okay.' You have to believe that."