INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts defeated Tennessee on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, 27-13.
It was a 53-man effort for 60 minutes, something the team has strived for all season. Sunday it came together.
The Indianapolis defense forced three turnovers, scored once, held tightly in the red zone and did not allow Tennessee to puncture the end zone until less than three minutes remained in the game.
Playing without numerous starters, the players hung tough and put together a victory in the 14th game of the season. A season without victory has not been a season without effort. It certainly tested the resolve of a team that won 115 regular-season games from 2000-09, along with multiple division titles, two conference championships and a World Championship.
The veteran leadership and integrity that allowed the club to reach heights held intact through a tough season. When Sunday's game was over, players credited leadership, exhaled and were proud of the accomplishment.
Linebacker Ernie Sims started for Indianapolis against Tennessee. Sims is in his initial Colts season, but he has been a part of other teams in his six-year career that had seasons like the one Indianapolis has endured in 2011. He notes what this team is like.
"That's what is great about this team, and I've seen it while I have been in other places in the past," said Sims. "This team has stuck together as a unit. We didn't let the outside sources creep in and try to divide us. We stuck together. We hung together as a team, as a family. Today was great.
"Our coach challenged us. He said, 'When somebody makes a play, everybody get to the ball, and everybody wrap him up.' That's exactly what we did. Everybody ran to the ball, hustled and turnovers won the ball game."
Sims was starting for an injured Philip Wheeler. The club has been without multiple defensive parts this year in players like Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt and Jerraud Powers. Linebacker Pat Angerer is one of three players who have opened each game. Angerer had two takeaways for the Colts on Sunday, including an end zone interception that stopped a drive when the Colts held a 20-6 lead.
The club's leading tackler this season had 12 more stops on Sunday, and players loved his effort.
"Pat's a baller, man. I'm honored to play beside him," said linebacker Kavell Conner.
Cornerback Jacob Lacey pirated a pass from Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck early in the third quarter and returned it 32 yards for a score to put the club up by 14 points. Safety Antoine Bethea, another 14-game starter this season, noted the importance of the play, along with others ones made by the defense.
"A pick is big, but especially a pick-six really feels good," said Bethea. "It put some points on the board for us. Jake (Lacey) had a great game. Chris Rucker had a great game. It was good seeing everyone do what they were supposed to do on a consistent basis. It is big getting the outcome we have been working for. Pat (Angerer) played a (heck) of a game. Kavell (Conner) was flying around and hitting. (Jacob Lacey) Lace, a pick-six, Robert (Mathis) getting to the quarterback. It was a group effort."
Indianapolis limited Tennessee running back Chris Johnson to 55 yards on 15 rushes, while holding Tennessee to 66 rushing yards as a team.
"That was huge," said Bethea. "We always put an emphasis on trying to stop the run and make the offense one-dimensional. Starting off the game, (Jacob) Lacey and Kavell (Conner) put some huge hits on him. We slowed him down. Everybody flew around and had some fun out there.
"I'm happy. The young guys really haven't been able to feel the excitement of Colts football and the way we've won games in the past. Now, they have. I'm just happy. Pat (Angerer) played a (heck) of a game. Kavell (Conner) was flying around and hitting. (Jacob Lacey) Lace, a pick-six, Robert (Mathis) getting to the quarterback. It was a group effort."
The type of performance was one that resembled many over the past few years for the Colts. A term used often when the team produced the winningest regular-season victory total in NFL history was, 'Playing Colts Football.' Sunday was a return to that in the estimation of some of the veterans.
"It was a group effort," said Bethea. "That's all we wanted. Each week we always say we need the defense to play well, but maybe the offense struggled. Maybe it was the other way other times. I think today the special teams did a great job kicking the ball and covering. The offense ran the ball well and controlled the clock. The defense was able to fly around and get some turnovers. It was Colts football. It felt like years before when the defense was out there flying around, the offense was moving the ball and the special teams doing their things. Hopefully, we can do that the last two games and end the season on a good note."
Six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney saw glimpses of "Colts football" for the first time in 2011. To Freeney, it was a welcomed sight, and the victory was a relief.
"Yes, it was (Colts football)," said Freeney. "We got back to playing great defense, playing fast, playing physical. The offense did a great job. The special teams did a great job. Our (three) phases did what it took to win a game. I think everybody was ready this week, the fans. Obviously our team was ready. We got it done.
"It feels great. You never want to go winless. A win in this league, you have celebrate. They don't come (easy). Sometimes it takes to week 14 to get it. Sometimes it comes in the first week. That's the National Football League.
"It's been a tough year. We finally got one. It absolutely does feel like it's been a year (since the team won). It has been a year, since we won. It's special, regardless of whether it's one (win) or 10 (wins), whatever. Whenever you can win in this league, it means something. You can't (take wins for granted). This year shows you that you can't. You had better appreciate them when they come."
Conner is one of the team's young veterans. He lauds those who have been here longer for what they have done this year.
"We have great veteran leaders," said Conner. "I credit them. They keep us all together. They keep us focused every week. We approach every game like it's a new day. That comes from our veterans."
Angerer felt the relief, too. He knows the team has battled all season without giving up. With two games left, he is not ready to stop now.
"Absolutely (the team did not quit all season)," said Angerer. "That was a good team we beat today. Everyone played well. Our defensive line played great, the secondary was tight and the linebackers flew around. The key was we hit him (Chris Johnson) early. Kavell (Conner) had that big hit on him, and it kind of slowed him down after that. It was a fun game. We really let it loose out there and had fun. We kept it simple and let loose and we had fun. I think people could see we were having a good time. It definitely was a team effort.
"It feels good. Losing (stinks). It's nice to finally get a win. We're going to enjoy it for a day, then get back to work."