D’Qwell Jackson admitted there were times during his first career NFL playoff game on Sunday afternoon that the Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker got caught looking.
Not at the Cincinnati Bengals.
At fellow inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
It might be an understatement to assert that Freeman was everywhere in the Colts’ 26-10 AFC Wild Card playoff victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Free” ran down almost everything to finish with a game-high 15 tackles. He had 1.5 of the Colts’ three sacks on Andy Dalton. He forced a Dalton fumble that the Colts recovered late in the fourth quarter. Oh, and he was credited with a quarterback hurry, too.
“That what his best game since we’ve been playing together,” Jackson said of the third-year pro. “He was all over the place. I got caught at times just watching him.
“He was moving so fast, there were pressures when I knew his number was being called, man, it was great to see him come back from sitting out last week, he was disappointed about not playing (due to a hamstring injury), and coming back and having his best game, in my opinion.”
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne saw the same thing.
“Man, you were all over the field,” Wayne told Freeman.
The Colts balanced effective offense with dominant second-half defense in advancing to an AFC Divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Ahead just 13-10 at halftime, the Colts’ defense had given up big runs in the first half and the offense didn’t finish promising scoring drives. They let the fifth-seeded Bengals hang around.
That ended in the first series — a Bengals three-and-out — in the second half. Cincinnati managed just 19 yards in the third quarter, 98 for the half. And 34 of those yards came in the final two-minute possession with the game decided.
“There were a couple of hills and valleys there in the first half,” Freeman said. “We had to kind of corral 32 (Jeremy Hill) and 25 (Giovani Bernard) there for a second. I think, all in all, our back end held up and our front seven was real good this week, man. Hopefully we can build on that.”
The Bengals finished with 110 yards rushing, but just 45 after halftime. Cincinnati was 9-1-1 when rushing for 100 net yards, but had to pass more after Andrew Luck threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to rookie Donte Moncrief for a 20-10 lead in the third quarter.
Luck and the offense held up their end, despite penalties, dropped passes and four promising scoring drives in which they had to settle for Adam Vinatieri field goals. Luck completed 31-of-44 passes for 376 yards and the one score. He threw another TD pass to tight end Coby Fleener, but it was wiped out by a Moncrief block-in-the-back penalty.
Colts running back Dan Herron had 141 total yards, 85 receiving on 10 catches and 56 on 12 rushes including a 3-yard TD run on the game’s opening possession. The 10 receptions tied for fourth most in a playoff game in franchise history.
The only question after the Colts started to pull away was could the Bengals mount a comeback? And the answer became a resounding no.
Dalton was sacked three times, the last by Freeman, and it forced a fumble that the Colts’ Montori Hughes recovered late in the final quarter. Dalton completed just 7-of-19 passes for 64 yards in the second half. His longest completion was 14 yards. The Bengals converted just two-of-seven third downs in the second half.
The Bengals obviously missed not having the services of Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, ruled out with a concussion, as well as tight end Jermaine Gresham with a back injury. Then middle linebacker Rey Maualuga exited with a hamstring injury early in the second quarter.
Cincinnati’s winless playoff drought of 24 years continues. Dalton drops to 0-4 in the postseason, and head coach Marvin Lewis is now 0-6 in the playoffs in 12 seasons with the Bengals.
“It’s disappointing, but I don’t know any other way,” Lewis said. “Whenever the opportunity comes to build back up and get working, (we have to) fight our way back through it.”
The Colts advance to the second round for a second consecutive postseason. They lost 43-22 at New England last year. They’ve earned a rematch against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, who defeated Indianapolis 31-24 in Denver in the season opener.
“Proud of everybody,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Proud of the coaches, proud of the players. Now we’re on to try to take the next step.”
Freeman didn’t realize he had so many tackles. He was just running to the ball.
“I don’t know about (being) in the zone,” he said. “I just tried to make the most of each and every opportunity I had out there.”
Jackson, who spent his first eight seasons in Cleveland before signing with the Colts last offseason, finished with six tackles in his first NFL playoff victory.
“It’s going to be short-lived, but it feels good,” Jackson said. “But I can’t enjoy it just yet.”
The Colts will be looking to win a road playoff game for the first time since Jan. 13, 2007, a 15-6 AFC Divisional playoff victory at Baltimore. Those Colts went on to win Super Bowl XLI.
“That first game we played at Denver, I’m sure everybody can say they wished they played a little better,” Jackson said. “To have a second chance, you can’t ask for a better storyline than that.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.