What a way to break in the new year.
Despite a 28-point third-quarter deficit, the Indianapolis Colts managed to defy the impossible yet again with the second-biggest comeback in playoff history, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44 Saturday.
In what was the greatest game in Lucas Oil Stadium history, the Colts rode Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and a never-say-die attitude to the first playoff win of the new era. The Colts will next travel to either Denver or New England, depending on the result of the Cincinnati Bengals game against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
But before we move on to next week, we must take time to revel in this game, one that will go down in history as an instant classic, reminiscent of the Colts' 18-point comeback against the New England Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. So what was special about this one, and what can we take from it going forward? Find out in this week's takeaways.
In his short career, Andrew Luck has had a few "overrated" articles written about him.
That was, in a word, stupid. Luck has done phenomenal things over the last two years, including orchestrating some memorable and near-impossible comebacks. Saturday was the most incredible feat of all.
It was only the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history. It was only four touchdown passes and 443 yards, the fifth-most yards in playoff history and the third 440-plus, four touchdown playoff game ever. It was only 481 total offensive yards (443 passing, 45 rushing, -7 sack yards), eight yards short of Bernie Kosar's record 489 yards in 1987.
Most of all, it was a never-say-die attitude, a will to succeed at all costs, epitomized in Luck scooping up Donald Brown's fumble and stretching over a pile of bodies for the touchdown. With Luck, neither his teammates or fans ever believe a win is out of reach. After a game like this, it's easy to see why.
Members of the Donald Brown fan club have been saying it all season: Feed the Beast. When Brown gets touches, good things happen.
Brown finished the game with 15 touches for 102 total yards, two touchdowns and one lucky bounce. Brown was effective running the ball, gaining 55 yards on just 11 carries, and added 47 receiving yards on four catches, including a 25-yard catch and run that led to a Coby Fleener touchdown reception in the third quarter. Both of Brown's touchdowns came in the third quarter as well, as the Colts launched their historic comeback.
Sure, the fumble was potentially harmful, but it was just Brown's second fumble of his career, and it resulted in one of the most memorable plays in Colts playoff history.
Meanwhile, Trent Richardson was benched after his only carry of the game ended in a lost fumble in the first half (the sixth fumble of his two-year career) and he missed a blocking assignment on a following snap. Brown should, and will, be the feature back going forward.
There have been many great receiving games in NFL history.
Nobody has ever put together a game like T.Y. Hilton did on Saturday, with 13 catches, 224 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 64-yard score. Steve Smith's 12/218/2 line in 2006 comes close, but he didn't have the game-winner to top it off.
Hilton was a nightmare for the Chiefs all game, and easily the Colts' most consistent weapon. No other Colt caught more than five passes, as Hilton had over half of Luck's passing yards. A weapon over the middle and down the field, Hilton beat the Chiefs in every way possible on Saturday.
The best receiving performance ever and a phenomenal comeback win?
For a second-year receiver out of Florida International University, that's not too shabby.
While Hilton stole the show, the Colts' other receivers made an impact as well.
Coby Fleener finished with five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. Fleener had a couple of drops, but also caught a phenomenal throw from Luck down the seam for a 12-yard touchdown pass. LaVon Brazill caught four passes for 54 yards, and Griff Whalen caught two for 26.
But the most notable impact on the fewest touches? Da'Rick Rogers' 46 yards on one reception, a game-changing bomb in the third quarter that shifted momentum to the Colts and started the epic comeback. Rogers showed exactly what he brings to the table on the play, going up to get the deep ball in one-on-one coverage. It was a phenomenal play by the undrafted rookie, and one that has Colts fans salivating over the future.
The contribution by all the receivers again illustrated why it was so critical that the Colts play to their strengths with a spread offense. Even with Rogers and Brazill not catching a ton of balls, they opened up the field for guys like Brown and Hilton to feast underneath. Even without Wayne, Luck can get contributions from this group of skill players.
Earlier this week, Peter Bukowski of Sports Illustrated listed Robert Mathis as third in his list of defensive player of the year candidates, citing Mathis' "lack of marquee games" as his reason for not being higher.
Never mind that Mathis had multiple sacks and/or a forced fumble in each of the Colts' wins over the Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers and Chiefs, the biggest wins of Indianapolis' regular season. Well, it seems that Mathis took notice of Bukowski's comments.
Regardless, Mathis showed up in this game, the most important yet of the Colts' 2013 season. Down 38-17 in the third quarter, Mathis beat tight end Anthony Fasano and pulling left guard Jeff Allen around the right side, chased down Alex Smith and stripped the ball, which was recovered by Kelvin Sheppard.
It was Mathis' ninth forced fumble of the year, and none came at a better time.
Prior to this weekend, the 2013 Colts were undefeated when they won the turnover battle, .500 when they tied and winless when they turned the ball over more than the opponent. It was as good of a win/loss indicator as any.
Saturday, the Colts broke that trend in dramatic fashion, pulling out the win despite turning the ball over four times to Kansas City's one (two if you include a late turnover-on-downs).
The Colts overcame the deficit with quickness:
Key to Indy's comeback: all their scoring drives were short on clock. The longest was 4:02 (90-yd drive). Kept game going by scoring quick.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 5, 2014
In addition to a quick-strike offense, the Colts defense got the Chiefs off the field in the second half, as they held the Chiefs to just one drive of more than six plays in the second half.
Despite the victory, there still were some negatives hanging from this one, namely on the defense, which gave up 44 points to a Jamaal Charles-less Kansas City offense Saturday.
Greg Toler and Vontae Davis were particularly perturbing, still looking hampered by injury through much of the game. Toler is the most concerning, coming off a groin injury that kept him out for half of the season. Toler looked slow on the field, with sluggish reactions on Saturday, the low point coming when Donnie Avery burned him deep down the middle of the field in the first half.
But even considering potential injuries, it was a rough game for the Colts defense, which had finished the regular season strong. The Colts next game will be against either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, and the defense will have its hands full.
Can they get stops against one of the best quarterbacks of all time? They struggled to get them against Alex Smith Saturday, so it could get ugly.
All season, I've blasted Chuck Pagano for poor game plans, an ill-prepared team and an outdated philosophy. I've ragged on Pep Hamilton for odd play-calling mixed with a stubborn commitment to running the ball. I don't regret any of that criticism, all of which was valid.
But, credit the Colts coaches for their in-game adjustments and leadership in this one, without which the Colts would be staying home for the rest of the playoffs.
Yes, the Colts came out flat and got down big, which is, in part, a responsibility of the coaches. But Pagano always inspires his players to give everything to the final whistle, and he did it again today.
The coaches rightfully ditched Richardson and the power-run game in this matchup, using the spread offense and Donald Brown on nearly every offensive snap. They put the ball in the hands of their best playmakers (Luck, Hilton and Brown) and it paid off. Defensively, the Colts were porous early, but Greg Manusky dialed up the right calls in the second half to make Alex Smith uncomfortable and inconsistent.
Pagano has his flaws, and they can and will cost the Colts at times. But his ability to lead a team through adversity and inspire his players is a rare attribute in the NFL, and it shouldn't be underestimated.