Colts, Luck dig out of hole with ‘complete game’

Courtesy Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The stars were out and Frank Reich felt the mounting heat.

This was no time for his rollin’ Indianapolis Colts to make a mess on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Not on a Sunday afternoon set aside for Reggie Wayne to be added to the Ring of Honor. Not with so many of Reich’s former colleagues – Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark, Marlin Jackson, Gary Brackett, Anthony Gonzalez – revving up the noise in the stadium and rekindling memories of how it used to be.

“I felt a lot of pressure,’’ admitted Reich, who was part of the Tony Dungy/Jim Caldwell coaching staffs from 2006-11. “There could have been nobody else in the stands but those guys and I wanted us to have a good output.

“I wanted those guys to be proud. Those guys represented what Colts football is all about. It was especially fun today to have that kind of game in front of our all-time greats.’’

What type of game would that be? A comprehensive beat-down of the Tennessee Titans. It was 38-10, and seemed so much worse.

“That’s as complete a game as you can play,’’ Reich allowed.

The Colts have won four straight for the first time since 2014 and, finally after their error-filled 1-5 start, have reached the break-even point. They’re 5-5, and – brace yourself – right smack dab in any postseason discussion. The Los Angeles Chargers (7-2) have a stranglehold on the first wild-card spot and will challenge for the AFC West title, but look at the logjam for that wild-card second berth. Five teams sit at 5-5: Indy, the Titans, Miami, Baltimore and Cincinnati.

For so long, Reich harped on how the Colts had dug themselves a hole and had to dig their way out.

Sunday, daylight.

“We said, ‘OK, we’re out of the hole. Our eyes can see over the horizon, but now we’ve got a mountain to climb,’’’ Reich said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We’re going to keep the same mindset: one week at a time.’’

What’s the difference between then and now. Between 1-5 and 5-5?

“We’re not giving games away,’’ center Ryan Kelly said. “We’re playing complete games.

“This team has shown a lot of maturity rather than riding that emotional wave. It’s about execution. You don’t put 38 points on a team without execution.’’

Andrew Luck agreed after yet another exquisite outing.

“Things are clicking,’’ he said after dissecting the Titans for 297 yards and three touchdowns. “I think you can look back and say, ‘Alright, we are making fewer mistakes. I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot less.

“At the same time, we can be even sharper. It’s all because all our guys are locked in every day.’’

The Colts certainly were locked in Sunday. They locked down the Titans in every way possible. Consider:

  • an offense that had averaged 36 points and 408 total yards during the three-game winning streak was even better. It piled up 38 points against a Titans defense that ranked No. 1 in fewest points allowed (16.8). It fell 3 yards shy of a fifth 400-yard outing in the last seven games only because of three Jacoby Brissett kneel-downs to end the blowout.

“We did well today against a really good defense,’’ Luck said.

That qualified as a massive understatement by the conductor of the virtuoso performance who benefitted from a club-record fifth straight game without allowing a sack. Luck posted a career-best fourth straight passer rating of at least 100 (143.8), the longest such streak since Manning reeled off five straight in 2009. He’s had at least three TDs in seven straight games, the third-longest streak in one season in NFL history behind Tom Brady (10) and Manning (8).

Oh, and T.Y. Hilton went off: nine catches on nine targets for 155 yards and two TDs. That after being quiet and more of a decoy the last three games: 16 targets, 8 receptions, 136 yards, two TDs.

“All of us had a feeling T.Y. was going to have a big game and he delivered in a big-time way,’’ Reich said.

  •  a defense that has had trouble locating the quarterback, let alone pressuring him, suffocated Marcus Mariota, then backup Blaine Gabbert after Mariota departed in the third quarter with an elbow injury. After watching his group manage just four sacks and four QB hits in the last four games, coordinator Matt Eberflus dialed up his blitz package and got the desired results: 5 sacks and an additional 2 hits. The Titans finished with just 263 total yards – 87 on the ground – and 94 came on a cosmetic scoring drive to end the game.

“We just knew we had to get after the quarterback a lot, so we just had a lot of games up front that let our pass rushers get free,’’ said rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, whose busy stat line included 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and his first career interception.

  • when it wasn’t committing a costly penalty, special teams contributed. Chester Rogers notched a career-best and season-long 51-yard punt return. It would have been a 74-yard touchdown had it not been for Arthur Maulet’s holding penalty behind the play. The offense used the short field – first-and-10 at the Titans’ 33-yard line – to move into position for Marlon Mack’s 1-yard TD run and a 7-0 lead.

As Reich noted, about as complete a game as could be expected.

And as has been the case throughout the four-game winning streak, so much of that can be traced to Luck’s performance that has featured accuracy, efficiency and productivity. During the streak, he’s 83-of-112 (74.1 percent) for 977 yards with 13 touchdowns, one interception and a ridiculous 135.2 rating.

Just think, at this time last year Luck was on the injured reserve list with his shoulder issues. He had left the team and spent Thanksgiving in the Netherlands as he relocated his comeback regimen.

“It’s pretty crazy,’’ Luck said. “I was not in a good spot a year ago today. I remember that. I am in a good spot now. My perspective is a little different towards this game. I appreciate things a little bit more and I think that’s pretty consistent with anybody who’s been out for a significant time with an injury.

“As a quarterback in this league if you play for a couple of years, you’re going to have gone through something. I’d like to think that what happened, the result of that, is the best thing for my career . . . the best thing that could have happened.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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