INDIANAPOLIS – Philip Rivers could feel the moment Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. This wasn’t just another game, the 10th of the season.
Several hours later, his boss – the man who signs Rivers’ paychecks totaling $25 million – agreed.
Jim Irsay was so moved by what transpired Sunday afternoon/evening at Lucas Oil Stadium – Rivers and his Indianapolis Colts 34, the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers 31, in overtime no less – that after savoring the moment with his team in the locker room, he stepped outside and initiated a Zoom conference call with the media.
“Hey guys,’’ Irsay said, offering his usual opening line and punctuating it with a laugh. “Welcome to 2020, huh? Never thought I’d see you guys outside the locker room this way.
“We’re just obviously really excited about the victory.’’
He mentioned Rodgers’ excellence. And the Packers’ 100-year history.
But Irsay also lavished praise where it was due: at those players in the locker room and what they were able to accomplish, at times in spite of themselves.
“Our guys hung in there and truly one of the most exciting victories we’ve ever had at home here and obviously in overtime, too,’’ he said.
“We couldn’t be more elated.’’
That elation was boosted by, you know, the moment.
Colts vs. Packers was arguably the weekend’s marquee matchup. Indy was 6-3 and tied with Tennessee atop the AFC South. Green Bay was 7-2 and the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Although the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd was capped at 12,500 because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, it was a rowdy pregame group. Unable to attend games at Lambeau Field, Packers fans found their way to Indy.
Rivers could feel the vibes.
“It felt like a big game when we came out for warmups,’’ he said. “It had a little more energy to it. Our fans were great. Green Bay, they haven’t been able to go to one of their home games yet so you knew they were going to be fired up.
“Shoot, Aaron Rodgers is over there. It’s the Green Bay Packers, the best team record-wise in the NFC. It felt that way.’’
It was a pair of elite QB1s fighting to a virtual standoff. Rivers was 24-of-36 for 288 yards with three TDs, one tipped interception and a 107.2 passer rating. Rodgers countered with 27-of-38 for 311 yards with three TDs, one interception (Rock Ya-Sin got him) and a 110.7 rating.
It was the Colts’ No. 1-ranked defense enduring a bad first half – it had a pair of takeaways but allowed four TDs on Green Bay’s other five possessions, and 206 total yards – but regrouping at halftime and tightening the screws after the break.
Rivers’ first half offense was one of missed opportunities. There was a 45-yard TD pass to rookie Michael Pittman Jr. and a 17-yarder to Trey Burton, but Mo Alie-Cox lost a fumble, a tipped Rivers’ pass was intercepted and Rodrigo Blankenship’s dramatic day – his 39-yard field goal in overtime won it – began with him clanging a 50-yard attempt off the crossbar.
Rodgers’ third TD pass of the half – a 4-yarder to running back Jamaal Williams – with 16 seconds remaining pushed the Packers in front 28-14.
Cheeseheads celebrated. The Colts fumed.
“Guys were upset at halftime, I can tell ya,’’ Rivers said. “Defense was upset. We were upset offensively that we had the two turnovers and we had the holding call on the other drive going down to make it 14-7.
“But it was like, ‘Let’s go. What are we going to do?’ It’s a resilient group.’’
Before Blankenship knocked down his fourth field goal after halftime and the first game-winner of his young NFL career, so much transpired.
Listen to Frank Reich.
“Wow, what a game,’’ he said. “Great team win. All week our focus was two things: play together and then we talked about the bigger the game, the smaller you’ve got to make your game, narrow things down, focus and make it small.
“And then be a beast in that small world. I think that’s what our guys did.’’
And listen to Irsay, who made it a point to single out one particular area of his football team.
“Well, I’ve learned it’s the best defense I’ve seen since ’95 when we almost made it to the Super Bowl,’’ he said. “It’s really a special group.’’
With little margin for error while facing a 14-point deficit against the NFL’s most efficient/prolific passer, the defense asserted itself.
Green Bay’s third-quarter: two three-and-outs, six plays, 15 yards. The Packers’ third drive of the second half reached the Indy 34, but Rodgers’ fourth-and-1 pass to Williams was wild and high because of in-your-face pressure from defensive tackle Grover Stewart.
Rodgers went scoreless in the second half and Rivers countered four drives to open the second half that produced three Blankenship field goals and a 6-yard TD to Jack Doyle. Time after time, backup Jacoby Brissett kept drives alive with third- or fourth-down conversions.
So much was going right with the offense, until it didn’t. The Colts were incredibly inept and unable to close out the game.
With a 31-28 lead and 3 minutes, 6 seconds to play, Rivers stepped behind center Ryan Kelly for what could have been – should have been – a close-out possession that began at the Indy 34.
Instead, there were six – six!! – penalties, including three that were declined because of a failed play by the Colts or multiple penalties on the same play. Incredibly, there were five flags for holding: Pittman, two by right guard Mark Glowinski (one enforced, one declined), left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Chaz Green (declined because Nelson’s was enforced).
“Ridiculous,’’ Irsay said.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t put it away,’’ Reich said. “We’ve got to do a better job. This is on me. It’s elementary football when you’re in that mode. You’ve got to keep your hands inside.’’
Instead of draining the clock and forcing the Packers to exhaust their timeouts, Rigoberto Sanchez punted on fourth-and-26. He pinned Green Bay at the 6 with 1:25 remaining, but Rodgers needed only 1 minute, 22 seconds to get the Packers in position for Mason Crosby’s game-tying 25-yard field goal.
Despite the swing in momentum that was palpable and the fact the Packers won the coin toss and Rodgers was back on the field to start overtime, Reich’s confidence never wavered.
“You just have that belief,’’ he insisted. “When you’re in a game like that, with our team and with our players I just have too much confidence and belief that we’re going to make the plays that are needed to win the game.
“Julian did that.’’
Yes, Julian Blackmon did.
The rookie safety added more evidence to his Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy by forcing a fumble by Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the second play of overtime. He split a pair of blockers and jarred the ball loose by hitting Valdes-Scantling’s arm.
“Honestly I didn’t know that I forced it until I got up,’’ he said. “I knew I hit his arm, but I had no idea the ball was out. Once I saw that the ball was on the ground, I started flippin’ out.’’
That’s because DeForest Buckner covered it at the Packers 29-yard line.
Three Jonathan Taylor runs positioned Blankenship for his 39-yard game-winner. The rookie knew it was pure as soon as he made contact.
“Yeah, it felt pretty good coming off my foot,’’ Blankenship said.
And it felt good as the Colts exited Lucas Oil Stadium.
Also, consider the rarity of the occasion. According to ESPN Stats, Rodgers is 95-2 in his career against the rest of the NFL when holding a lead of at least 14 points. He’s now 1-2 against the Colts. The last time he visited Indy in 2012, the Packers led 21-3 at the half only to have Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne share the stage in a dramatic second-half comeback that resulted in a 30-27 Colts’ victory.
And now, this.
“I think we have the complete package,’’ Irsay said. “We just have to keep getting better. The schedule’s tough. Look at the conference: Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore, Tennessee.
“It’s a tough conference to be in so it’s going to be a battle all the way.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.