DENVER — The Indianapolis Colts are still playing today and preparing to head to New England for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game because several unsung players contributed to their survival.
They don’t get noticed as much, nor singled out for their efforts and interviewed after games.
But these players were solid in Sunday’s 24-13 AFC Divisional playoff victory over the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks caught a touchdown pass. Often overlooked this season, where more was expected from a free agent signed to a one-year contract, Nicks caught a 15-yard bullet from Andrew Luck for a third-quarter score that made it 21-10.
Nicks wasn’t open at first, then got just enough separation to give his quarterback an end-zone target.
“I think we believe, as a team, that we are one of the best teams, if not the best team,” Nicks said. “That’s what we believe and we are just going to continue to do what we need to do to come out victorious.”
How did Luck have all kinds of time to make so many clutch throws? The offensive line didn’t allow a sack. Not to DeMarcus Ware. Not to Von Miller. Not to anyone. And that’s an O-line with second-year pro Khaled Holmes at center and fifth-year backup Joe Reitz at offensive right tackle.
“I just did my job,” said Holmes, who had been inactive for 11 games and for so long was thought to be a forgotten man in a constant reshuffling of an offensive line with 11 different starting combinations. “Just playing football and having Andrew behind you gives you all the confidence in the world.”
Reitz has started both playoff victories since Gosder Cherilus was placed on injured reserve. He credited right guard Lance Louis for assisting on some much-needed double teams. Louis has started the last five games after being inactive for seven games during the regular season.
“The communication is huge,” Reitz said. “We did a nice job of staying on the same page. Our guards did a great job of helping. A couple of times they had me, and Lance was right there in my pocket and did a great job helping me.
“I just think we’re a bunch of resilient guys. We have a bunch of fighters.”
Cornerback Vontae Davis showed why the Colts invested $39 million in him last offseason. The Colts’ cover guys were physical with Broncos receivers, jamming them as much as possible to get them off their routes.
Davis, selected to his first Pro Bowl this season, was exceptional with eight tackles and five passes defended. Cornerback Greg Toler made six tackles with one pass defended.
The game was tied at seven in the second quarter when rookie outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome blind-sided quarterback Peyton Manning and jarred the football loose. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman fell on the fumble. The Colts took over and drove 41 yards to a go-ahead touchdown. And they never trailed after that.
Newsome didn’t play many snaps with the base defense at times this season. But when he got his chance, he eventually led the team in sacks with 6.5. The former Ball State star made a play to remember in the biggest game of his young pro career. He had three tackles.
Outside linebacker Erik Walden had a sack of Manning in the final minutes. He had the team’s only sack of Manning in the 31-24 loss at Denver in the season opener. Walden had a career high six sacks this season.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson had a game-high 11 tackles in his second career playoff game. Safety LaRon Landry gave up the Broncos’ only touchdown, but would eventually make eight tackles.
The Colts’ capable tight-end trio of Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle combined to catch 10 passes for 93 yards and one score. Allen had the touchdown, a 3-yard reception for a 14-7 lead in the second quarter. Fleener’s 32-yard reception in the middle of three Broncos defenders was a huge conversion on third and 16, and it set up Nicks’ touchdown.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton gets his share of pub as the team’s No. 1 receiver, but his contribution epitomized the gritty effort. Often grabbed and held by Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib, Hilton drew two penalties for first downs and caught four passes for 72 yards.
The Colts raised eyebrows 90 minutes before kickoff when inactives were announced. Running back Trent Richardson was a healthy scratch. That meant second-year pro Daniel “Boom” Herron would start and carry much of the load with rookie Zurlon Tipton as the backup.
Since Ahmad Bradshaw’s departure with a season-ending injury, Herron has emerged to make several big plays this season. But he’s also fumbled. Not this day. “Boom” scored a game-tying touchdown on a 6-yard rush in the second quarter.
He appeared to hurt his shoulder after diving into the end zone. But he wasn’t coming out. Herron ran for 63 yards on 23 carries and caught a team-high eight passes for 32 yards. The numbers don’t jump off the page, but the steady production helped the Colts move the chains enough to dominate time of possession: 34:01-25:59.
“It was definitely a team win,” Herron said.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.