After a slow start that left them with a slim 10-3 lead in the second quarter, the Colts went in at the half tied with Buffalo at 10-10 after tight end Ben Utecht coughed up the football and cornerback Terrence McGee returned the mishap for a 68-yard touchdown. Then in the fourth quarter, with the Colts clinging to a 17-16 lead, running back Dominic Rhodes fumbled after running for a 4-yard gain, setting up the Bills at the Indy 41. The Bills drove to the Colts' 15-yard line before defensive end Dwight Freeney got his first full sack of the season, tackling Bills quarterback J.P. Losman for a 6-yard loss, forcing Buffalo to go for a field goal.
The sack would prove to be a pivotal moment of the game as Buffalo kicker Ryan Lindell, who had only missed one attempt all season, barely pushed his field goal attempt wide right. The Colts were able to control the clock the rest of the way and clinch the victory, which now gives them a four-game lead in the AFC South over the Jacksonville Jaguars who lost 13-10 to the Texans on Sunday with just 7 games remaining in the regular season.
Here are my thoughts and observations about the game....at first glance.
-- Today's inactives for the Colts were safeties Bob Sanders and Matt Giordano, defensive tackles Darrell Reid and Montae Reagor, wide receiver Brandon Stokley, tight end Jerome Collins, and linebackers Gary Brackett and Keith O'Neil. Everyone except for Collins were on the team's injury list this week.
-- In a game this tight, you can look back at a few plays that had significant impact on the Colts winning versus taking their first loss of the season. One was certainly Antoine Bethea's touchdown-saving tackle on Terrence McGee's 88-yard kickoff return. The Bills had to settle for a field goal on the possession instead of putting up a quick 7 points. Freeney's sack in the fourth quarter that I mentioned above was also huge in a game that could have swung the other way if Ryan Lindell's quick attempt was 6-yards closer.
-- The Colts, who have scored more points in the fourth quarter than any other period this season, were shut out by the Bills in the last 15 minutes of play, but during the final 6 minutes, they simply wanted to close the books on the victory.
-- Offensively, the clutch performers were Reggie Wayne and Joseph Addai. In addition to an amazing touchdown catch over his shoulder in the first half despite tough coverage, Wayne (4-42-1 TD) also made a nice grab at the five-yard line in the second half that set up the Colts for their second touchdown. Meanwhile, Addai not only punched in the second touchdown of the day, he also made some key third-down conversions and was instrumental in helping the Colts take the final 6 minutes off the clock so that Buffalo's offense wasn't able to give Lindell a second chance to win the game.
-- Buffalo was very effective taking away the deep routes, despite having two rookies playing safety. Peyton Manning had 39 pass attempts, but finished with just 236 yards on 27 completions and 1 TD. His 6.05 yards per completion was his second-lowest production in that category this season and his longest completion of the day was only 23 yards. Ironically, the only other time he was restricted like that was in the 14-13 win over Tennessee where his longest pass was also 23 yards.
-- Wide receiver Marvin Harrison had just two catches for 21 yards, his least-productive performance in both categories so far this year. The Bills pulled a switch-up on the Colts, moving Nate Clements over to Harrison's side even though he's listed on their depth chart as their right cornerback. That gave Reggie Wayne the more advantageous matchup against Terrence McGee, but the Colts weren't able to exploit it frequently.
-- Hunter Smith, who at times doesn't get to punt all that much when the offense is clicking, was involved in a big play early that helped alter the game after the Bills had mounted an impressive opening drive. In the first quarter, Smith nailed a 57-yard punt that pinned the Bills at their own 2-yard line. Credit Marlin Jackson and Freddy Keiaho for hustling down there to make sure it didn't bounce into the end zone, and T.J. Rushing for his hustle and downing the ball after Jackson's slap at the ball. The Bills ended up punting from deep in their own territory a few plays later.
-- Freddy Keiaho forced a fumble on a kickoff return that was recovered by Buffalo and led the team with three solo special teams tackles. Also getting credited with a single ST tackle each were Antoine Bethea, Rocky Boiman, and Kelvin Hayden. Tyjuan Hagler and Bo Schobel each got an assist.
-- The Colts' run defense held Bills running back Anthony Thomas to 109 yards and a 3.9 average per carry and the Bills offense to 111 total and 3.6 yards per carry. That's a big improvement over their usual performance, especially in light of the fact that they were missing both safety Bob Sanders and middle linebacker Gary Brackett.
-- Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai had a fairly balanced day after a couple of weeks that put more emphasis on the rookie. Addai finished with 78 yards on 13 carries (6.0-yard average) while Rhodes had 72 yards on 14 carries (5.1 per carry). The average per carry stats were single-game season highs for both running backs. Addai also finished the day as the second-leading receiver with 7 catches for 46, just slightly behind tight end Ben Utecht who had 66 yards on 7 catches. Utecht's totals were single-game career-bests for him.
-- Today wasn't one of Jason David's better performances. He's been terrific all year, but Lee Evans gave him some fits at times, finishing the day with five catches for 70 yards. But the Bills only completed 9 passes all day. Cornerback Nick Harper looked sharp both against the pass and the run.
-- Bills punter Brian Moorman was a huge weapon for Buffalo in this contest, punting four times for a net average of 49.3 yards.
-- Once again, the Colts special teams kickoff coverage unit did a good job with the exception of the one huge return by McGee that I noted earlier. Subtract out his 88-yard return, and he averaged just 20 yards per return on his other three attempts.
-- Tony Dungy will undoubtedly use this game to remind his team about what a difference turnovers make and special teams gaffes as well. You look at the stats and this one shouldn't have been close. The Colts had 26 first downs compared to just 10 for Buffalo and they had 384 yards of offense compared to just 162 by the Bills.
-- All you had to do was take a look at the two quarterbacks in this game while they were on the sidelines to know which one is an MVP contender and which one is struggling to keep his head above water. Manning was consistently active on the sidelines, looking at photos, talking to his teammates or on the phone much of the time. In other words, he was working a full sixty minutes. How many times did you see Losman just sitting on the bench alone with his hair tussled and staring into space as though he was sitting on a park bunch on a sunny day? Too often. That can't inspire a lot of confidence or respect from his teammates.
-- The Bills continued their awful performance in the red zone today. They had eleven plays inside the Colts 20-yard line and netted a negative eight yards for the day. That's just embarrassing.
-- After just 11 sacks in their first 8 games, the Colts added 4 today with a pair by Robert Mathis, one by Dwight Freeney and one by Anthony McFarland.
-- Indiana-based fans undoubtedly gritted their teeth a bit at the end of this game. As he was wrapping up the televised broadcast, Indiana University graduate and renowned announcer Dick Enberg stated that the "Baltimore Colts" had just become the first team in NFL history to go 9-0 in consecutive seasons.
The Colts take on the Cowboys in Dallas next week. Kickoff is at 4:15 p.m. (ET).