INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The latest step on what has been an accelerated growth process involved more than a few stumbles Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, but seemed so much more gratifying after a dramatic victory was achieved in spite of those missteps.
This was a game the Indianapolis Colts had found ways to lose in the past.
“And we lost them at the beginning of the year,’’ Frank Reich reminded anyone within earshot.
There’s no doubt the frustrating losses to Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Houston were rattling in his head.
Sunday, another loomed. With just over 13 minutes remaining, the Colts trailed Miami 24-14 and appeared careening towards what would have been a crippling loss to any playoff aspirations.
After three first-half turnovers, including two Andrew Luck interceptions on consecutive plays in the second quarter.
After Rigoberto Sanchez suffered a blocked punt.
After Adam Vinatieri delivering – well, chunking – a 48-yard field goal attempt that represented, in his words, “about as ugly of a kick as I’ve ever kicked in my life.’’
After the defense littered the field with a truckload of missed tackles.
“Down by 10 and I don’t think there was any panic,’’ insisted Vinatieri, who atoned for his wayward 48-yarder in the third quarter by delivering the Colts’ 27-24 victory with a game-winning 32-yarder as time expired.
“We just said, ‘Let’s get back to work and let’s put some points on the board.’’’
To a man, the Colts believed.
They believed they would find a way to extend their winning streak to five and get above .500 – 6-5 – for the first time since November 2015.
They believed in Andrew Luck getting the football to T.Y. Hilton, to Eric Ebron, to Chester Rogers, to whomever was the right guy in the right place at the right time.
With zero room for error over the final 13 minutes, Luck played at an MVP level. He led the offense on three scoring drives – a 12-yard TD toss to Ebron sandwiched between 46- and 32-yard Vinatieri field goals – by completing 11-of-12 passes for 133 yards.
Reich insisted he’s come to expect such steely precision from Luck.
“Really, I did,’’ he said. “Just the way he’s been playing. We went through some things. We didn’t make some plays as a team.
“Andrew’s directing the ship and he’s the one pulling the trigger, but it was everybody in that (fourth quarter). But that’s what you expect from Andrew and from our offense.’’
Luck rose to the occasion. He compiled a passer rating of at least 100 (109.8) for a fifth straight game, the longest streak of his career.
Ebron’s second TD catch of the game that made it 24-all with 4:25 to play – that upped his season total to 11, tying Dallas Clark’s club record for a tight end – came three plays after Luck waited, waited, waited in a busy passing pocket for Hilton to work himself free over the middle. The 36-yard completion converted a third-and-1 and gave the Colts a first down at the Miami 25.
And the 28th game-winning kick of Vinatieri’s decorated career was made possible by Luck’s poise in the face of mounting pressure: third-and-9 at the Indy 43 at the 2-minute warning, overtime looming.
“The play that Andrew makes to Chester is incredible. It’s incredible,’’ Reich said.
It was a 34-yard completion – first-and-10 at the Miami 23 – but getting it required Luck offering one of those defining moments.
Initially, the Dolphins showed Luck a look that took him by surprise.
“I’ll be honest, I was confused on the play,’’ he said. “They lined up in a look they had only shown once before all year. I checked to something . . . little bit of ‘Oh, (shoot).’’’
Miami sent two outside rushers crashing the pocket, but Luck stepped up to avoid Akeem Spence and Andre Branch. He briefly stumbled, then regained his balance.
“I was trying to remain a passer as long as I could,’’ Luck said. “There was a moment there, ‘Don’t go down, Andrew. C’mon, stay up. Give our guys a chance.’ And managed to.
“Just glad it worked out.’’
“It’s incredible because he starts with a stumble, right?’’ Reich said. “For him to regain his balance, then you think you’re going to regain your balance and run it, but he regains his balance and sees Chester.
“That was a big-time throw. That’s why he is who he is.’’
Chester wasn’t an afterthought on the play, but neither was he the primary target. He worked himself free deep down the left-side of the field.
“I was far from the first option,’’ he said. “But you’ve got to understand in this offense, you’re always a target. Andrew is mobile and he can make plays.
“He got out of the pocket and they lost (track of) me.’’
Like so many others, Hilton’s smile widened when the topic of Luck was broached.
“Andrew, man, he’s unbelievable, man,’’ he said after catching 7 passes for 125 yards. “He’s a guy you want on your team. You’ve got to love to have him.’’
Added Ebron: “12 . . . I’m happy he’s my quarterback. For real. He never surprises me.’’
Just like that, the Colts had sidestepped disaster.
Their offense finished strong and their defense and Sanchez made it possible following Ebron’s game-tying TD. Safety Xavien Howard was penalized for unnecessary roughness for a late hit on Ebron’s TD, and Sanchez used the short field and yet another penalty on Miami to pin the Dolphins back at their own 6.
“The kick by Rigo basically wins us the game,’’ Reich said. “You can’t place that thing any better.’’
The three-and-out and Rogers’ 14-yard punt return led to the Luck-led offense taking over at the Indy 42 with 2 minutes, 28 seconds remaining.
All that remained was for some closing heroics by Luck, and Vinatieri.
“Wow, what a game,’’ Reich said. “Not the way you draw it up. It wasn’t our best football, per se, but if you’re trying to become a good football team, you need to find ways to win games like this.
“We did that. I’m really proud of the guys the way they hung in there because is wasn’t pretty at times.’’
Sometimes, you just have to find a way.
“You’ve got to learn how to find a way when it’s not easy, when it doesn’t seem to be your night,’’ Luck said. “We’re excited and we’ll never apologize for a win, but we’ve got to improve.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.