The Indianapolis Colts signed quarterback Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million free-agent deal this offseason, intending for him to be the final piece of the puzzle, lead the team back to the postseason and possibly compete for more. However, the opposite has been true through their first nine games of the regular season.
Rivers, who surpassed Dan Marino as the NFL's fifth all-time leading passer, is merely a cog among a complete squad capable of winning games in all three phases, which it showed during Thursday's 34-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans. With the win, the Colts moved into a tie for first place in the AFC South. The division rivals will meet again Nov. 29 in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis' formula for winning moving forward is quite simple: Don't let Rivers lose games for the team.
While it might be a tad unfair to place the onus on the 38-year-old quarterback, the Colts set a rather high bar for his play before he ever took a snap in a horseshoe-adorned uniform.
"Just being there on the inside in the three years that I was and knowing the quarterback position like I do, I was so confident physically he was the right player and he had not lost anything. I didn't notice any physical gifts diminishing. From a locker room guy, this guy brings juice ... When I tell you he's elite intellectually, he's at the top. There are a group of guys in the football world I would put in that category—not everybody gets those gifts. He has them.
"... Went back and looked at all his film for the last two years and didn't see any physical drop-off in his play, so this was a unique opportunity. It wasn't so much about what Jacoby [Brissett] wasn't doing. It was about an opportunity for someone we feel is an elite quarterback and can help our team."
No one can deny the experience Rivers brings to the team. At the same time, he's made multiple crippling decisions that have kept opponents alive and even cost the Colts games.
As shown during Thursday's effort, the aging quarterback can be a major hindrance due to a lack of mobility.
In fact, multiple short-yardage play calls came into question because Rivers isn't a threat to run or even sneak the ball. Jacoby Brissett entered the contest to score the game's final touchdown during a 3rd-and-1 play from the Titans' 2-yard line. The backup is now 14-of-14 in converting 3rd- or 4th-and-short down-and-distances throughout his career, per the Fox telecast.
The first half nearly ended without a scoring opportunity when Rivers inexplicably took a sack with no timeouts remaining. Fortunately, the Colts spiked the ball with one second left, which allowed Rodrigo Blankenship to convert a 43-yard field-goal attempt.
Everything worked out in the Colts' favor Thursday because Indianapolis' defense and special teams played great. Rivers wasn't horrible, either. He threw for 308 yards and a score.
Reich told reporters after the game he "had that feeling all week" that Rivers would put together a big game. Frankly, he needed one after Indianapolis' 24-10 loss Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens. The quarterback's general inaccuracy and interception didn't allow the offense to get on track at any point.
In the team's three losses this season, Rivers has thrown five of his seven interceptions.
The Colts are built so they don't need to rely on their quarterback to make plays consistently. Their running backs each bring something a little different to the table and gained 110 combined yards against the Titans. Nyheim Hines adds yet another dimension as a receiver out of the backfield. He finished second on the team Thursday in receptions (five) and yards (45).
"The Lord blessed me to have the hot hand tonight, so I just had to make the most of it," Hines told reporters.
When playing behind arguably the game's best offensive line, the skill positions are simply required to execute and play efficient football. If things don't break in the unit's favor, it's OK to punt and allow the NFL's top-ranked defense to take the field.
A great example could be found after the Titans made a fantastic goalline stand. The Colts responded by shutting down Tennessee's offense before the Titans' Trevor Daniel shanked a 17-yard punt. Indianapolis scored a touchdown four plays later.
Offense drives today's NFL. The idea of playing a field-position game and taking a chance, knowing the team's defense is good enough to shut down an opponent, isn't as prevalent as it once was. The Colts possess this capability because they're a sound defensive unit with multiple playmakers along the front seven.
Indianapolis features arguably the game's best pair of defensive tackles in DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart. Buckner has been worth everything the franchise traded for his services and the subsequent mega-extension he signed.
"He plays the run. He plays the pass. He gives relentless effort," Reich told Fox during this week's telecast preparation. "He makes big-time plays. He is a complete player. He is a game-wrecker."
Usually, nose tackles don't receive much attention, but Stewart should. The fourth-year defensive lineman has blossomed this season. He clogged running lanes Thursday, defeated blocks, got into the backfield and ran down ball-carriers. He and Buckner combined for 10 total tackles, a tackle for loss and three quarterback hits against the Titans.
At the second level, Darius Leonard is the NFL's most active linebacker. Bobby Okereke and Anthony Walker fly to the football, as well. This trio is long, fast and athletic. They sniff out running plays and can still shut down throwing lanes, which makes the Colts difficult to expose even if the secondary doesn't have the same caliber of talent as the front seven.
Even so, Indianapolis defensive backs tend to play disciplined football. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' influence can be found all over the unit. As a group, the Colts rally to the ball and do so under control. They'll rarely give up chunk plays. This approach may not be what has made other defenses historically great, but it's perfect for today's game.
If everything else fails, Indianapolis' special teams can pick up the slack. T.J. Carrie scooped a blocked punt Thursday for a quick six-yard touchdown scamper. The Colts lead the NFL with five defensive or special teams touchdowns this season, per ESPN's Trey Wingo. Blankenship ranks second with 80 points scored.
No team is perfect, even the league's best. The Colts might be the most well-rounded, though.
As long as Rivers serves as a facilitator without making crucial mistakes, Indianapolis can win the AFC South and compete with anyone. However, if he holds the team back, which he's done on occasion this season, the Colts will move on this offseason and look for another option behind center because they might still be a quarterback away from big things.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.