Tennessee was able to make it into the Indianapolis red zone three times in the second half, but were only able to convert one of those drives into points. When the Titans started to make a game of it after digging themselves into a two touchdown hole at halftime, you got the sense that everyone on the Colts defense knew that someone was going to make a play to turn the tide.
For his part, Peyton Manning refused to let the offense's concentration lapse and he continually extended drives with key third-down conversions.
That seven-minute drive in the fourth quarter only resulted in a field goal, but Manning's ability to play keep away — and Joseph Addai's ability to make plays both as a tailback and a receiver — were the difference in this game on the offensive side.
On the defensive side, the game balls go to the linebackers: Gary Brackett and Clint Session were all over the field, moving sideline to sideline and attacking the line of scrimmage. Larry Coyer brought Melvin Bullitt into the box and he contributed 12 tackles, but it was Brackett and Session that dictated the flow of the play to Chris Johnson and the Tennessee offensive line.
They played aggressive and smart, shot their gaps, and took the fight to Johnson, who is too patient and too explosive to allow him to pick his spots. Towards the end of the game, he seemed to be overanalyzing the hole and seemed too tentative to do any damage.
He ended up with 113 yards, but it took 27 carries. The linebackers stayed vigilant and they stayed in their spots, not over committing on the play, but also not giving Johnson too much time to decide, cut, and explode.
Facing one of the most dangerous players in the NFL, they allowed Johnson a long run of 11 yards and generally contained him, as it seems to be impossible to stop him completely.
As long as there is balance, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark don't need to have huge days: The Titans committed their safeties to Wayne and Clark on their respective sides of the formation and left themselves open to the one-on-one matchup of Pierre Garcon versus Nick Harper. Garcon delivered and Austin Collie and Addai chipped in as safety valves and sure targets in the red zone.
While no parades will be thrown in honor of a 21-carry, 79-yard performance, at least the Colts showed a commitment to running the ball to close out the game and Addai delivered in clutch situations both on third down and inside the ten. If everything works as expected, Indianapolis will play their January games in a dome, but you still need to be able to grind out the tough yards when the defense stiffens and the game is on the line. If defenses continue to ignore the running game and focus on stopping Clark and Wayne, Indianapolis needs to be able to run the ball effectively.
They're definitely not at a place yet where a conversion on third-and-two would be assured, but they're getting there and Sunday was an important first step: Recognizing that third-and-two and the running game are important.
Manning makes the defense better: With a field goal drive in the closing seconds of the first half, the legend of Peyton Manning continues to grow.
He is practically unstoppable in the two-minute offense and it forces the opposition's offense to take risks that they would not take against other teams that do not have 18 under center. Teams know that field goals will not cut it against this offense and the pressure that adds to the opposing sideline is extremely valuable.
Bill Belichick went for it on fourth-and-two under questionable circumstances and Jeff Fisher eschewed field goals and rolled the dice on fourth-and-five and fourth-and-two deep in Indianapolis territory. Thus far, the defense has been able to step up in these situations and make a play. It's a high risk, high reward proposition and it has been paying dividends to this point.
But, a time will come when a very opportunistic and resilient defense doesn't make a play. And the Colts need to be ready to deal with that eventually as fervently as they've celebrated their successes.
Still, the defense needs to play better between the 20s: They've been exceptional in the red zone in 2009, but success on defense in the red zone is part luck, part will, part seizing an opportunity to make a play. All three parts have been in the defense's favor and they've made their own luck to an extent, but they cannot expect to sustain the level of success they've had thus far, particularly in the last few weeks.
In the playoffs, the intensity level rises and the competition improves. The Colts got it done yet again on Sunday against another hot, talented team with a lot of red zone weapons in their arsenal.
But, trends go the other way, too. The best way to make sure their luck doesn't turn in the wrong direction in the red zone is to keep teams from getting there.
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