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Bend but don’t break? Darius Leonard-led Colts get rare shutout at expense of Cowboys

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 16: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball as Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts tries to make the stop from behind at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 16, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It was all but wrapped up, one of those rare games in today’s point-crazy NFL when one team has a bunch and the other zilch.

And Darius Leonard knew it. How could he not? The Indianapolis Colts’ gifted rookie linebacker had Quincy Wilson barking in his ear.

A shutout was right there. It would be the first by the Colts’ defense since they stoned Cincinnati 27-0 in 2014. And it would be the first suffered by the Dallas Cowboys since a 12-0 loss at New England in 2003.

“Without a doubt,’’ Leonard said. “You get in the fourth quarter and they’ve got zero on the board. We want to keep that.

“Quincy Wilson kept coming up every time we went on the field, ‘Keep the shutout. Keep the goose egg. Let’s get it.’ It was extra motivation.’’

Less than 5 minutes remained Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts led 23-0 and their defense had turned back one last Cowboys’ thrust that had reached midfield, but no further.

Again, the shutout was right there as the defense handed things to Andrew Luck and the offense for the finishing touches.

Then, Marlon Mack encountered his only hiccup on a day that saw his pierce Dallas’ No. 3-ranked run defense for a career-high 139 yards on 27 carries. He lost a fumble at the Indy 35.

Suddenly, the shutout was in danger of being erased by a mop-up touchdown by the Cowboys.

Leonard’s brow furrowed at the thought.

“Bend but don’t break,’’ he said. “That’s the defense. Bend but don’t break.’’

It bent a lot, especially early, allowing Dallas to generate three first-half drives that consisted of 10, 15 and 14 plays. The Cowboys had 179 yards by halftime.

But it never broke. Never.

The defense applied the exclamation mark on the Colts’ most complete performance of the season by forcing an offense that featured Dak Prescott, NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott and reborn Amari Cooper into a four-and-done possession. Rookie safety George Odom guaranteed the shutout with his first career interception.

“Defense carried the torch today,’’ Luck said after an efficient 192-yard, zero touchdown afternoon.

“Defense was huge,’’ agreed Frank Reich.

The mood in the locker room was New Year’s Eve-ish. You know, rowdy.

“I don’t know if you guys heard all the music and all the screaming,’’ rookie defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis said after generating his first two career sacks. “Everybody is pretty excited right now.

“Morale is up. Everybody is hype right now.’’

After their error-filled 1-5 start, the Colts have won seven of their last eight. At 8-6, they’re not only very much in pursuit of the second AFC wild-card berth, they’re oh so close to being in total command of that chase.

They return for the postseason for the first time since 2014 if they win out – Sunday at home against the New York Giants, Dec. 30 at Tennessee – and either Baltimore or Pittsburgh lose once.

It’s that simple, just as it was simple Sunday that the Colts defense had something to prove.

A week after the Colts snapped Houston’s NFL-long nine-game winning streak, Dallas brought a five-game win streak and percolating offense to town. So much of the pre-game talk focused on the Cowboys’ No. 4-ranked defense.

“We always talk about being the No. 1 defense every Sunday, being the No. 1 hustling defense every Sunday,’’ said Leonard. “It’s something we take pride in and we put it on display today.’’

If there was a statement to be made and a time to make it, it was on the fourth play of the second quarter. Dallas faced a fourth-and-1 at the Indy 3 with the Colts up 7-0. After fullback Jamize Olawale dropped a sure TD on third down, Prescott returned to the basics.

He handed the football to Elliott.

Margus Hunt blew the play up with immediate penetration. Matthew Adams arrived to clean things up. Elliott was stuffed for a 2-yard loss, then fumbled with Jabaal Sheard recovering.

“That’s huge,’’ Reich said. “Zeke doesn’t get stopped too many times in that situation.’’

“Fourth down on the goal line and being able to stop them like that, that kind of sets the tone how we’re going to take this game on as a defense,’’ Hunt said. “That was a huge play for us up front, for the whole defense.’’

It was one of many big plays by a defense that continues to emerge as one of the NFL’s best. It’s now not allowed an offensive touchdown in four games for the first time since 2005.

“They can’t win if they don’t score points, right?’’ Hunt asked with a knowing smile.

Incredibly, Dallas created something on each of its seven possessions with at least one first down. Five of the drives penetrated Colts territory, including two that went inside the 20. The other two ended at the Dallas 49 and midfield.

Yet zero points.

Credit Leonard, who won his personal duel with Dallas’ Leighton Vander Esch for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He finished with 11 tackles, including a nifty open-field stop on Elliott for no gain on second-and-14 in the fourth quarter, and two more defended passes.

Credit Lewis, who was too much for Dallas’ interior protection with 2 sacks and 2 tackles for loss.

Credit Pierre Desir, who helped limit Cooper to 4 catches and 32 yards on seven targets. He broke up a third-and-2 pass to tight end Blake Jarwin that forced a third-quarter punt.

Credit Denico Autry, who revved things up in the first quarter by blocking Brett Maher’s 48-yard field goal that led to Mack’s 1-yard run and a 7-0 Colts’ lead. Autry also notched his sixth sack in the last three games, pushing his total to a team-best 9.

Credit the entire defense for limiting Elliott to 87 yards after going for at least 113 in four of his previous five games.

“It was incredible,’’ Reich said. “To pitch a shutout, it is . . . it’s playmaking. I thought Flus (coordinator Matt Eberflus) called a great game. Then on top of that just the execution, the effort and it just seemed like whenever we needed to make a play . . . we made it.’’

Luck and the offense were the beneficiaries of the defensive gem. The stinginess enabled Luck to give Mack steady doses of handoffs, which kept Dallas’ pass rush at bay.

“All day they came up big, really, really big,’’ he said. “Dallas put some long drives together and to not get points out of those is demoralizing for an offense.’’

His was the voice of experience. It hasn’t been that long ago that Luck and the Colts’ offense were shut down in a 6-0 loss at Jacksonville.

“We were on the other end of a goose egg a couple of weeks ago and it’s not a good feeling,’’ Luck said. “It’s really not. It’s one of the worst feelings as an offensive player or a quarterback in this league.

“It’s hard to do as a defense, I know that. What our guys did today was really, really impressive.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.