INDIANAPOLIS – It was early Thursday night at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.
It was before Nyheim Hines had slithered and jittered and dove his way to a career-high 115 total yards from scrimmage.
And before the 2018 fourth-round draft pick tied Cleveland’s Kareem Hunt for the most receiving touchdowns (four) by a running back.
And before the birthday boy – happy 24th, Nyheim – became the first player in the NFL this season, and the first Colt since Joe Addai in 2009, to have multiple games with a rushing and receiving touchdown.
And it was long before the Indianapolis Colts had put the finishing touches on a huge statement win against the Tennessee Titans – it was 34-17 and it seemed as if everybody did something noteworthy – when running backs coach Tom Rathman had a feeling this was going to be a special night for Hines for reasons other than, you know, it being his birthday.
“(Hines) just came out and he had fire in his eye,’’ coach Frank Reich said in a post-game Zoom conference call. “I can’t explain it. Coach Rathman came up to me on the sideline and said, ‘Nyheim is on fire.’ I said, ‘Leave him in. Give him a break when he needs a break, but let’s ride it.’
“Every now and then – you know how it is – you’re in the zone and you got a little extra juice and Nyheim had that out there today.’’
Rathman’s revelation was in the first quarter, and was news to Hines.
“I didn’t know Rath said that. Dang, that’s cool,’’ Hines said. “You know Rath, it’s hard to earn a compliment from Rath. He’s old-school, so that means a lot.’’
And let’s not kid ourselves, the win over the Titans meant a lot to the Colts.
It was a measure of redemption following Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but more importantly enabled the Colts to pull even with the Titans at 6-3 atop the AFC South, even a smidge ahead not that they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. After a long weekend and a Nov. 22 home game with the Green Bay Packers, there’s a Nov. 29 rematch with Tennessee at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Yes, this one was huge,’’ quarterback Philip Rivers said. “It was a huge game. We knew it. It was going to be huge either way, but coming off last week’s game, not finding a way to beat the Ravens, it was even bigger.’’
The longer Rivers talked after an efficient, productive evening – 29-of-39, 308 yards, one TD, a 105.5 passer rating – the more he lost his inner battle to maintain an even keel.
“Y’all can tell I’m pretty excited,’’ he said. “This was a huge win. I knew this was big.’’
Rivers’ post-game chat with the media was over, but he had one more handoff before departing the stadium.
“I’ve got Nyheim Hines here, birthday boy here,’’ he said with a smile.
It was a fitting introduction. The 38-year-old quarterback yielding the floor – OK, the Zoom call – to the now 24-year-old running back.
There were so many levels to the Colts’ most complete game of the season. Such as:
Pittman’s emergence. Rookie wideout Michael Pittman posting his first 100-yard game – seven catches, 101 yards – and complementing it with a 21-yard run on an end around to the Titans’ 2-yard line. Two plays later, Hines dove in for his second TD of the game.
“Yeah, he looked explosive, like a beast with the football in his hands,’’ Reich said of Pittman.
Special teams. Backup linebacker E.J. Speed bursting through Tennessee’s punt protection and smothering Trevor Daniel’s punt, and cornerback T.J. Carrie scooping it up and returning it 6 yards for a TD that pushed a 20-17 lead to 27-17. The time between Hines’ TD and Carrie’s: 59 seconds.
“We had a blitz-screen lined up to where I could knife inside the seam and it came open,’’ Speed said. “Once it came open, it was time to make a play. I made the play, we scored and it changed the game.’’
Defense. The defense yielding 103 yards on 19 attempts to Derrick Henry, but pummeling quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He was a meager 15-of-27 for 147 yards and one TD, but paid the price. Tannehill was sacked once by Denico Autry and tackle DeForest Buckner got to him for three jarring hits and end Justin Houston another.
But this was Nyheim Hines’ night, remember?
His 24th birthday, remember?
According to NFL Research, Hines joined Green Bay’s Samkon Gado as the only players since at least 1948 to have his first game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns occur on their birthday.
“This is the best birthday ever,’’ Hines said. “I’ve got surprise birthdays and a lot of things, but I’ve never played on my birthday. I was actually scared because it was either going to be a good game or a bad game. Lord blessed me to have a good game.
“My 24th birthday is a birthday I’ll never forget for sure. I wanted to go out there and play great and Lord blessed me to play great.
“I think I’m a dynamic player and I think in space I’m one of the most dangerous guys out there. I feel like a sparkplug on our team. They rode the hot hand tonight and the Lord blessed me to have the hot hand tonight.’’
Rivers has played alongside several quality backs during his 17-year career, and now is benefitting from Hines’ versatile, playmaking game. Hines led the Colts with 70 yards and one TD on 12 rushes and added 45 yards and a 13-yard TD on five receptions.
“The thing with Nyheim, with guys like him that I’ve been around in the past, they quickly get labeled a ‘scatback’ and a receiver,’’ Rivers said. “This guy’s a runner. He can run between the tackles and he’s also a heckuva receiver.
“He’s an explosive player.’’