What We Learned: Colts at Browns

Eric Hartz has reviewed the film, studied the stats, and points out five things we learned from Sunday's win over the Browns. See what Hartz found out about Robert Mathis, obscure NFL rules, the Colts' depth, the upcoming schedule and more inside!

1. Robert Mathis deserves a trip to Hawaii: Hard to believe, but the Colts' "other" defensive end has never been to the Pro Bowl. That should change this season, as Mathis is having a truly special season in his sixth campaign.

Mathis has racked up big sack numbers before — he's had two double-digit sack seasons already in his career — but it's been his timing this season that will punch his ticket to Hawaii.

If not for two big, big plays by Mathis this season — the first, an all-out hustle play to strip Sage Rosenfels in the final minutes of a game in Houston, and the second, Sunday's fumble recovery and return for a touchdown at Cleveland — the Colts could easily be 6-6 or worse and on the outside of the AFC playoff picture.

Add in the fact that he's currently second among AFC defensive ends in sacks — with nine, he's just two behind position leader Mario Williams, and needs just three more for a career high — and Mathis will have a legitimate gripe if he's left stateside in February.

In fact, it's a possibility that all four of the AFC's defensive ends could come from the AFC South. In addition to Mathis (nine sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries), Williams (11 sacks, four forced fumbles), Dwight Freeney (eight sacks, four forced fumbles) is also deserving of the honor, and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch (4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles despite missing three games with an injury) could be selected as a reserve with a strong finish.

2. You can take a free kick after a fair catch: It's OK to admit it if you had no idea what Randy Cross and Dick Enberg were talking about at the end of the first half when the Browns punted from their own end zone.

Dungy's instructions about a fair catch were misunderstood at the end of the first half
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It's a little-known NFL rule that after fair-catching a punt, a team can choose to attempt a "free kick" — with no rush — for a field goal try. It's a rarely-used play, but Tony Dungy knew about the rule, and so did the officials, even if they had never seen one in person.

Unfortunately, returner Keiwan Ratliff seemed unaware of the fair catch requirement when he fielded the ball at the Cleveland 49-yard line.

"Keiwan didn't understand me," Dungy said after the game. "Yes, we wanted to fair catch that ball and see if we could get a free kick. We have practiced it. Obviously, we haven't practiced it enough, but we have practiced it. We talked about it, ‘Stand at the 50 (yard line) and if it's over your head, there's nothing we can do, but if we get a chance to fair catch it, we want to.' That was my fault for not being totally clear."

Should Ratliff have known the rule? Certainly. But Dungy did the right thing by taking the blame for the miscue.

And don't feel bad if you didn't know about the rule. You did know that games end in a tie after a scoreless overtime, right?

3. The Colts' depth will continue to be tested: It's been a seemingly endless string of injuries for the Colts over the last two seasons, and the beat went on Sunday. Two of the team's Pro Bowlers from a year ago, Bob Sanders and Jeff Saturday, were missing in action against Cleveland. That's the eighth game Sanders has missed this year, and the second for Saturday.

Additionally, contributors like Marlin Jackson, Mike Hart, Tom Santi, Ryan Lilja and T.J. Rushing have all been shelved for the year, and plenty of other players have missed time.

Sunday, defensive captain Gary Brackett and starting defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson were added to the list of the walking wounded, as Brackett left with a leg injury and Dawson injured a hamstring. Both are expected to miss at least this week's game with Cincinnati, and maybe longer.

The Colts have done a remarkable job staying competitive despite the sheer number of injuries the last two years. The goal right now, obviously, is to endure the injuries and get into the playoffs. But once in the playoffs, the goal is to be healthy enough to go on a run. Time will tell if the Colts can get back in top form with the hand they've been dealt.

4. No one can accuse the Colts of being boring: Perhaps the most amazing statistic from this wacky season is the way the Colts have been winning. In their eight wins, seven of them have been decided by six points or less. Only the 28-point win over Baltimore was well in hand in the second half — in fact, the Colts trailed in the second half in four of their seven close wins.

Additionally, three of the four teams the Colts have lost to — Chicago, Jacksonville, and Green Bay — currently have records of .500 and below. For the season, the Colts have scored just seven more points (257-250) than their opponents.

So, are close games a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, having a knack for winning games that are a tossup in the final minutes is a good quality for a team to have. On the other hand, you can't help but feel the weekly slugfests may eventually take their toll, and the inconsistency of beating good teams, losing to average ones and squeaking out wins over struggling clubs is worrisome.

Either way, though, it's a reason to keep watching.

5. Ten may get them in: At the start of November, it looked like the Colts would be fighting to the final week of the season to get to 10 or 11 wins and a likely playoff berth. Now, after a 5-0 month and Cincinnati and Detroit coming to visit, the Colts could get to 10 wins with two games to spare.

And 10 wins may be enough to get them in the playoffs, since the Colts have head-to-head tiebreakers over the 8-4 Ravens and 7-5 Patriots. The other likely wild-card candidates are both in the AFC East, the 7-5 Miami Dolphins and 6-6 Buffalo Bills.

The Ravens have a tough closing schedule, but three of their four games are at home, against Washington, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. The road game is against Dallas the week before Christmas. With a win over the Steelers, the Ravens could boost themselves into first place in the AFC North, but that would put Pittsburgh in a tie with Indianapolis, and the Colts own a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Steelers.

The Patriots play three of their final four on the road. First up is a pair of West Coast road trips to Seattle and Oakland. Then the PAtriots are home against the Arizona Cardinals before traveling to Buffalo. This is a favorable schedule for the Patriots, but the Patriots would need to win all four to get to 11 wins, which would be the only way they could bump Indianapolis if the Colts finish with 10 wins.

Of course, nothing can be taken for granted, as Cleveland showed the Colts last week. The best course of action for the Colts is just to keep the the win-at-all-costs mentality they have kept up for the last month. They've given themselves a little breathing room with their five-game winning streak, but no one in the NFL should ever breathe easy until the math says they can.

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