INDIANAPOLIS – Stick around the NFL long enough, and you’re liable to see just about everything.
It took Philip Rivers 17 years.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that happen,’’ he said with a smile.
Division game versus the same opponent for the second time in 21 days. Fumble inside the 5-yard line. Less than 2 minutes remaining.
Frank Reich’s NFL resume as a player and coach spans nearly three decades. He, too, experienced a rarity.
“It’s crazy,’’ Reich said on a Zoom conference call Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I mean it’s crazy.’’
It was crazy three weeks ago in Houston’s NRG Stadium when Deshaun Watson mishandled the shotgun snap with everything on the line: 1 minute, 28 seconds remaining, second-and-goal at the 2, his Texans trailing the Indianapolis Colts 26-20. Linebacker Anthony Walker sealed the deal by covering Watson’s fumble.
And it was déjà vu all over again Sunday in the latest critical moment in the Colts’ pursuit of a spot in the playoffs. The Texans trailed 27-20, but again were on the doorstep of either winning it in regulation or forcing overtime: 28 seconds remaining, fourth-and-5 at the Indy 15.
Again, everything went right for the Colts and so horribly, horribly wrong for Watson and the Texans.
“I feel like at this point it’s not even shocking anymore,’’ wideout Zach Pascal said. “We’re on the offensive sideline. We’re sitting down, we’re watching.
“We just know the defense is going to make a play and they did, as usual. Shout out to the defense.’’
It’s Grover Stewart complicating Watson’s botched snap, allowing Walker to swoop in for the recovery at Houston. It’s Kenny Moore II’s ridiculous one-handed interception and subsequent forced fumble last Sunday in Las Vegas.
And it’s Darius Leonard blowing up what nearly was a 15-yard Watson-to-Keke Coutee touchdown with time winding down at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“It’s letting you know you know we’re going to fight to the finish,’’ Leonard said. “I always say pressure does two things: it busts pipes or makes diamonds.
“I want pressure on me. I want to be the one to make the play and luckily today I was in the right position to make that play.’’
Watson hit Coutee on a shallow cross, Coutee stepped out of a tackle at the 5 and cut to the end zone. But at the 2, Xavier Rhodes and Leonard converged on him. While Rhodes was delivering a big hit from the left, Leonard was pursuing from behind and punched the ball out of Coutee’s left hand.
Bobby Okereke sealed it by recovering the fumble in the end zone.
It was the Colts’ second takeaway of the game and 24th of the season. More to the point, it was Leonard’s second forced fumble of the season and eighth of his brief playmaking career.
“If you know me you know I punch every time I tackle,’’ he said, adding a check by safety Khari Willis put him in position to make the play. “Luckily they threw the ball to (Coutee) coming back and I saw the ball in the left hand and I knew that I had a perfect opportunity there to get a punch-out to win the ball game.
“That’s what I did.’’
Watson once again was a game-long terror: 373 yards and two TDs despite being sacked 5 times by the Colts for the second time in three weeks.
“He’s making unbelievable plays, keeping them in the game,’’ Reich said.
“Just a ton of respect for Deshaun Watson,’’ Philip Rivers added. “He’s an unbelievable player. He’s always going to give them a chance.’’
But the defense found a way.
In fact, the Colts en masse found a way to strengthen their December push to the postseason.
They’re 10-4 – that’s double-digit wins for Reich in two of his three seasons as head coach – and tied with the Tennessee Titans atop the AFC South (the Titans hold the tiebreaker based on best division record). Moreover, they’re in firm position to secure one of three AFC wild-card spots.
They’re playing their best – and catching some breaks – at the most opportune time. The Colts have won seven of their last nine.
Playoff-caliber teams find a way, which was a topic of discussion in an ecstatic locker room.
“What I’m most excited about is in the fourth quarter of that game – when the game is on the line – we made plays in all three phases,’’ Reich said.
That would be:
- rookie Rodrigo Blankenship nailing a career-best 53-yard field goal to temporarily stretch the lead to 20-13.
- Rivers hitting T.Y. Hilton with a 41-yard laser on second-and-20 that produced a first-and-goal at the 3. Two plays later, Pascal gathered in a short Rivers pass to the left, absorbed a hit by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and dove to the pylon for his second TD of the day, two days after his 26th birthday.
That represented one of those critical “answer’’ drives – 12 plays, 75 yards – after Watson pulled Houston into a 20-all tie with a 9-yard TD pass to Coutee.
- Leonard forcing the fumble that Okereke recovered for a game-ending touchback.
“That’s what playing December football (is about) . . . that’s meaningful,’’ Reich said. “That’s what it takes to continue to build the DNA and who we are and where we believe we are going.’’
It’s anyone’s guess how far the Colts might go in the playoffs, but again, there’s no question they’re building momentum.
Rivers was incredibly efficient – 22 of 28, 78.6% – while passing for 228 yards, the two TDs to Pascal and a 124.4 rating. Over his last nine games, he’s had 18 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He joined Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson as the only quarterbacks this season with a rating of at least 118.0 in three consecutive games.
After contributing just three catches for 61 yards in his last three games, Pascal was Rivers’ go-to wideout: five catches, 79 yards, two TDs on six targets. The catches and yards were season highs.
“It was just his week,’’ Reich said.
And then there was the impact of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. The coveted offseason acquisition suffered a significant ankle injury in Thursday’s practice and his availability was very much in doubt. Buckner wasn’t cleared until he went through a 10 o’clock workout Sunday morning.
“I was pretty lucky. It was pretty much calmed down,’’ Buckner said. “There were times where I felt (the ankle) a little bit and I took myself out because I didn’t want it to linger, and it calmed down and I got back out there.
“There was a little pain, but it wasn’t too bad.’’
The coaching staff essentially limited Buckner to third-down and red-zone situations, but his impact was constant. He generated a career-high 3 sacks and added four tackles, including two for a loss, and another hit on Watson.
Again, the Colts’ established big-time players made plays when it mattered.
“We talked about it in there where you could play good football in all three phases, but it still comes down to a handful of plays,’’ Reich said.
“In the fourth quarter, you just have to believe and then you have to come up big in the clutch.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.