INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts have started off a number of recent seasons with long winning streaks.
The 2005 season was especially impressive when the club won its first 13 games. Only twice was the margin of victory as small as seven points during that run.
In 2009, the club went one game better, winning its first 14 games. The nature of some of those victories, however, was dramatically different. Seven of those victories were decided by four points or less and three of those came by two points or less.
A 5-0 November looked dominant, until closer examination. Wins over San Francisco, Houston, Baltimore and New England allowed Indianapolis 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 by scoring 28 second-half points after a 17-0 second-quarter deficit to win at Houston, 35-27.
What looked like dominant play was really the result of clutch play – making plays when it counted the most. With three consecutive single-digit defeats in the opening quarter of the season, Colts players know they are coming close. The key to being competitive is making the clutch play, and that is something some of the club's veterans know and feel confident can happen.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney keeps an even keel knowing the team's performances over the years fall well inside the wide spectrum of public perception.
"As I've said before, 'It's not all bad and it's not all good sometimes, it's somewhere in the middle.' We're not accustomed to being 0-4. We're not used to that, and we don't like the feeling," said Freeney. "We could easily have been 3-1 at the same time. It's a play here, a play there, a ball bouncing the right way, things happening the right way. We're 0-4, but that doesn't mean anything. We have to continue (trying) to win. We're going to continue taking the steps necessary to do that."
The current situation for the club is uncharted water for 52 of the 53 active roster players. Only quarterback Peyton Manning in his rookie 1998 season was 0-4. Freeney takes a bit of solace in the situation knowing the winning culture he and his teammates have created.
"It makes it a little bit easier," said Freeney. "I'm saying that because I don't know how it feels on the other side, the fact that we're used to winning around here, so we know how to win. I think that would help you, rather than the other way around – not knowing how to win and being in that situation. You're talking two, three or four plays here in a game and we're 3-1. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and we are where we are. We have to continue to grind, continue to stay focused and try to get this one here."
One of the younger veterans who will be called on is linebacker Philip Wheeler, and he knows what needs to be done to get over the hump.
"I think we're really close. You can tell by the scores," said Wheeler. "There are not a lot of high scoring games we've been playing. I think we're stopping teams. We just have to stop them more often than we have been."
Head Coach Jim Caldwell constantly preaches about how most games are determined by a handful of plays, and safety Antoine Bethea believes it and preaches it to younger teammates.
"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. Of the first four games, 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.
"Let's just keep doing what we're doing. We're out there playing hard. That's one thing that we don't have to question. All the guys are giving good efforts. We need to keep doing what we're doing, be technique-sound and the tide will turn."
Tight end Dallas Clark believes the theory as well that games are decided in a few key moments, and those moments are unpredictable as far as when they occur.
"Absolutely, that's the thing about the NFL from day one. Every game comes down to five or six plays, and you just never know which plays those are going to be," said Clark. "That's why you have to be on it every play. You have to give it your best every play. You never know if that one little extra nudge, that little extra block is going to make a big play for the team. That's what makes our game so exciting. It comes down to a little play here or there that makes a difference."
Defensive end Robert Mathis is a difference-maker for the Colts, and he knows the remedy for the team's current situation.
"Being the team we are, it's frustrating," said Mathis. "We're used to making those plays. That fact we're not making the plays to get us over the hump, it's very frustrating. We feel like we're right there. We're one play away, but we have to make that play. Talking about it is not going to get it done, we just have to make the play."
Center Jeff Saturday was direct this week in what the club must do as the second quarter of the season begins.
"The only way to get back to winning is to work hard," said Saturday. "You can't fold up, you can't back down. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. Nobody cares who doesn't play for your team. The guys who go out on the field understand that we have to find a way to win. The message I tell the guys is, 'Show up ready to work and play hard. Give yourself a chance to win the fourth quarter.' "
Caldwell was asked if the 0-4 start changed his belief that the club has talented players. Caldwell stood firm by the men who have authored victories in the past.
"It doesn't (change my opinion). I still believe that," said Caldwell. "We have a lot of football to play yet, and there are a lot of guys that have won a lot of football games for us. We have some that may be a little banged up right now, and we're getting some guys back here and there. All-in-all, I still believe that we have a good, veteran group of guys that can make plays. I think that's why you see that they're still right there in the mix. Sometimes we are one or two plays away. We haven't been the last couple of ballgames, completely out of the game at all, all the way to the bitter end. I think that has a lot to do with guys who have been on this team that understand how to win and will fight you tooth and nail to get a victory."
Caldwell always boils things down to the lowest denominator – winning. He knows it is the only thing to matter, and it has to come one game at a time.
"The bottom-line is winning," said Caldwell. "We divide this thing (season) into quarters. The first quarter is over with. There's nothing we can do about it. We have the start of the second quarter and let's see if we can improve. We're going to look at them one game at a time and add them up at the end."