INDIANAPOLIS – It was personal, and the emotions flowed in the locker room Sunday evening at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
There was Frank Reich, drenched after spending three-plus hours in the rain.
And there were his Indianapolis Colts, huddled around, listening, smiling, about to collectively burst.
This was personal for Reich, who spent the first nine years of his NFL playing career in this stadium and orchestrated the biggest comeback in league history nearly three decades ago. Remember the Buffalo Bills trailing Houston 35-3 in a 1992 first-round playoff game and rallying for a 41-38 overtime win with a backup quarterback named . . . Frank Reich?
And this was personal for the Colts. Ten months ago, their season ended with a 27-24 loss to the Bills in a first-round playoff game.
So, shortly after the Colts atoned for falling short against Buffalo last January, Reich addressed them following their 41-15 beat-down of the Bills on a rainy, wind-swept Sunday.
He wore his emotions on his wet sleeves.
“You know I don’t like to show too much emotion, but when you guys play like that, oh my goodness,’’ Reich said, looking around the room with his voice rising. “It was complete domination in all three phases. I don’t even know what to say. All I’ve gotta say is that plane’s going to be real happy going back.
“We ain’t done. Don’t even think about it for a second.’’
Team-wise, the Colts established themselves as a bunch to be reckoned with as November turns to December and beyond. From a 1-4 start, they’ve won five of six. At 6-5, they’re right smack dab in the thick of the AFC playoff picture.
They entered Sunday with a 45% chance of reaching the postseason, according to Firstthirtyeight.com. After pounding the Bills and snapping an eight-game losing streak against teams that had reached the 2020 playoffs, they’re at 73% heading into next Sunday’s meeting with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay at Lucas Oil Stadium.
As much as Reich savored his homecoming and the Colts made amends for being pushed into the offseason by the Bills in January, they realized a major reason was a second-year running back who’s thrust himself into the NFL’s MVP Watch.
That would be Jonathan Taylor.
During his address to the team, Reich held a football from the game. He waved it in the air, searching for its owner.
“Want to present a game ball,’’ he said. “It was a complete victory in all three phases. But the man . . . can we do this together?
“How many touchdowns? Can we do this together?’
One, two, three, four, five!
The locker room erupted.
Taylor stepped forward, took the football from Reich.
Just as he snatched the game from the Bills.
“He’s going crazy,’’ running back Nyheim Hines said of Taylor. “I mean, he sent a message to the league. It’s been amazing to watch him play.
“Like for me, I had the day off today. I was his fan today. JT just wants to go out there and run the damn ball, and today we did that.’’
Taylor’s dominant afternoon: a career-high 32 rushes for 185 yards and four touchdowns, three receptions for 19 yards and another TD. The five TDs were a franchise record and one short of the NFL record.
Here’s some context for Taylor’s game-long presence and productivity.
Carson Wentz was just 11-of-20 for 106 yards and the 23-yard TD to Taylor. It’s the fewest yards in his career in a game he finished. And tight end Jack Doyle was Wentz’s leading receiver with 30 yards on three catches.
“I just appreciate that he let me get in on the fun with one of those touchdowns,’’ Wentz said. “He’s a beast. We’re going to ride him as much as we can.’’
That was the idea from the outset against a Buffalo defense that ranked 1st or in the top-3 in most significant categories. It had allowed two field goals in the first quarter in its first nine games.
The Colts’ two first-quarter possessions: 3-yard TD run by Taylor and Taylor’s 23-yard TD pass from Wentz.
After three quarters, the Colts led 38-7 and Taylor had added 2-, 10- and 1-yard TD runs.
“A game like he had today, honestly doesn’t surprise me anymore because every single week he just shows up and shows out,’’ Wentz said. “He makes big plays, especially in a game like this where we thought coming in we’ve gotta establish the line of scrimmage
“The big boys up front did that and JT did the rest.’’
The Colts pounded away relentlessly. The 46 attempts are tied for the 5th-most in the Indy era and the most since an overtime loss to the Bills in 2017. The 264 yards are tied for the 6th-most since 1984.
The Colts, by the way, have generated the two highest rushing totals in the NFL this season: 264 against the Bills and 260 in week 9 against the New York Jets.
Sunday, six different players took shots at the Bills’ No. 3-ranked run defense, including Wentz (a key 18-yard escape-and-run on third-and-10 in the second quarter when things still were dicey), Hines (31 yards, including a 19-yarder), wideout Zach Pascal (one for 9), third-string running back Deon Jackson (six for 12) and backup QB Sam Ehlinger (one for 9 and a first down).
But the afternoon belonged to Taylor. He entered the game tied with Tennessee’s injured Derrick Henry for the league lead (937) and exited with 1,112 yards.
Before heading into the locker room, Taylor talked with owner Jim Irsay.
“He told me how proud he was,’’ Taylor said. “He said he spoke to Edgerrin (James) as well, and it kind of makes you want to go out there each and every single week during practice to put the work in so that it comes to life on the field on Sunday and you’re able to back him up and prove him right.’’
It’s becoming clearer with each passing week general manager Chris Ballard was right when he moved up three rungs in the second round of the 2020 draft to ensure he’d get Taylor.
“It was all Chris Ballard,’’ Reich said. “It was all Chris Ballard. There was no way that Chris Ballard wasn’t taking him.
“Yeah, Chris had his eye on JT from Day 1 and he never wavered from that. So, I know it’s Chris and all his staff. But I’m just telling you, I talk to him every day and . . . if we wouldn’t have got him, it would have crushed him.’’
Throughout what has been a breakout second season, Taylor has remained low-key. That was the case again Sunday.
“He’s the same low-key, humble dude,’’ Wentz said. “He brings energy, don’t get me wrong, but he’s all about team. He’ll take two carries, he’ll take 40 carries. It doesn’t matter. He just wants to win.’’
Taylor conceded Sunday “meant a lot,’’ but that was aimed at the team en masse.
“That’s something that we’re going to have to do,’’ he said. “If we’re going to get to where we want to go at the end of the year, we’re going to have to be able to put games away in the fourth quarter.
“We’re going to have to put points up. We’re going to have to play great defenses.’’
Taylor’s brilliance aside, Sunday was as complete a victory as the Colts have enjoyed in a long time.
The offensive line dominated the Bills. The Colts averaged 5.7 yards per rushing attempt and Wentz wasn’t sacked – one was negated by a holding penalty in the Bills’ secondary – and hit on only two other occasions. They converted 8-of-12 times on third down against (66.7%) against the NFL’s No. 1 third-down defense (29.5%).
And for the third straight game and fifth time this season, the offense didn’t turn the ball over. The Bills had forced a league-high 24 turnovers.
The defense, meanwhile, limited the Bills’ No. 5-ranked offense to 307 yards and Josh Allen to 209 yards. He tossed two touchdowns to Stefon Diggs but also was intercepted by safety George Odum and cornerback Kenny Moore II. Linebacker Zaire Franklin got the third interception at the expense of backup Mitch Trubisky. Rookie Kwity Paye got to Allen for his second sack in two games.
Special teams also chipped in. After Michael Badgley gave the Colts a 17-7 lead with a 36-yard field goal with 2:12 remaining in the first half, Isaiah McKenzie stumbled and lost control of the football on the ensuing kickoff. T.J. Carrie scooped it up and returned it to the Bills 2.
Taylor did the rest, vaulting over the line for the TD and a 24-7 halftime lead.
Just like that, Taylor further established himself as one of the NFL’s irresistible forces – and an MVP candidate – and the Colts injected themselves into serious playoff talk.
“We all feel like nobody respects us,’’ Hines said. “We’ve had the underdog mentality and role since Frank’s been here.
“We had a lot of things riding on this game and it was great to win the way we did.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.