For 12 games, Andrew Luck had carried the Indianapolis Colts.
Against the Tennessee Titans, his defense took a turn carrying him.
With a ferocious second-half comeback lead by 10 defense-generated points, the Colts overcame a 20-7 halftime deficit to post a 27-23 victory over their division rivals.
After an uneven first half on both sides of the ball, the Colts rallied thanks to vastly improved play from Cassius Vaughn and Vontae Davis. Both corners were abused liberally by Jake Locker in the first half, as the Titans force fed the ball to Kenny Britt.
Britt's 143 receiving yards came largely at the expense of Vaughn, who followed up an embarrassing performance against Calvin Johnson with an equally poor first half.
Both corners turned it around in a big way in the second half.
After a Luck-engineered touchdown drive to start the second half cut the Titans' lead to just six points, the Indy defense went to work. They held the Titans on three plays thanks to the first successful pass defended of the game by Vaughn on Nate Washington.
After the Colts went three-and-out, Pat McAfee boomed a high, soaring punt that drifted out of bounds at the Indianapolis 1-yard line.
With the Titans backed up, the Colts brought pressure on Jake Locker. He tried a quick out to Nate Washington, but Vaughn stepped in front of the offering and returned it three yards for a score.
Suddenly, the Colts had a 21-20 lead, and they had their biggest goat to thank for it.
Jumping the route was dangerous, but it paid off. After the game, Vaughn told reporters:
It’s always taking a big risk. Once he’s off and behind you, it’s always a risk. We believe in what we do. No matter what, we believe in what we do. In the beginning of the game, they were getting us on a couple deep balls, a couple come-backs. We turned it up in the second half.
Locker responded with a 16-play, 73-yard drive for a field goal to give Tennessee its last lead of the game early in the fourth quarter. Locker was uneven on the day, but did contribute with 51 rushing yards to offset a miserable afternoon by Chris Johnson (19-for-44).
With under 11 minutes to play, Luck went to work on his fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the season and his sixth game-winning drive. He marched the Colts 45 yards to set up a 52-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal to move Indianapolis back in front. The Colts could have had more, but Donnie Avery dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown in the end zone on third down.
With Indianapolis clinging to a one-point lead, the defense again went to work, as Darius Butler intercepted another Locker pass, returning it inside the Titans 30. Indy converted it into a field goal to provide the final margin of victory.
With the game on the line, the Colts defense allowed only 10 yards on the final Tennessee drive, forcing a punt with 2:52 to play.
The Colts picked up two first downs to exhaust the Titans' timeouts and ice their ninth win.
For the Colts, the win makes them a virtual lock for the postseason. They need just one more victory to lock up a wild-card berth, and even if it never comes, they will still more than likely qualify.
The Colts have leaned heavily on Luck all season and have to be encouraged at their ability to win despite terrible play from the rookie. Luck was under a heavy rush all day, but missed several wide-open throws and nearly gave the game away on an ill-advised pass.
As he was in the process of falling to the ground, Luck haphazardly tossed a ball into the belly of Will Witherspoon, who ran it back 40 yards for a touchdown. Though replays clearly indicated Luck's knee had hit the ground before the pass, his poor decision opened the door for the officials to blow the call.
Still, despite Luck's relative struggles, he managed to stabilize in the second half, playing mistake-free football down the stretch to secure the win.
It wasn't lost on him that his teammates carried the day.
They deserve more than half the credit. They put us in great positions all year, especially today with the go-ahead score. I think at that point, when Cassius’ (Vaughn) pick, maybe they came back.
I think it’s the best team game in the world, I really do. You have to rely on so many guys and so many different phases of the game. It’s fun when you can get team victories.
Next week, they'll travel to Houston to battle the Texans with the division title potentially in play.
For the Titans, this game was a microcosm of their increasingly frustrating season. Locker was alternately terrific and terrible, making explosive plays with his legs, but being careless with the football at the worst possible moment.
Tennessee had multiple chances to take the lead in the closing minutes but couldn't overcome a raucous Indianapolis crowd and an energized defense. Locker said:
It was frustrating. It was frustrating for sure. All you can do is keep working. We just made a lot of little mental mistakes. We had penalties we didn’t have in the first half. We just made some mistakes. We had turnovers. We didn’t have that in the first half.
Those are things that can be a difference between gaining a bunch of yards and scoring points and not. We were ahead of the chains in the first half and we weren’t in the second and that can make a difference.
In Week 15, they'll continue playing out the string against the New York Jets.
Quotes courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts PR department via press release.