INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) – Maybe it wasn't all a mirage. Maybe those victories over sad sacks Buffalo and Oakland weren't just desert oases, a figment of a hungry fan base's imagination. Maybe the ability to run the football and protect Andrew Luck and force turnovers weren't parts of a fever dream.
Mind you, the Colts nearly threw away Sunday's game, a 29-26 victory over the underachieving Jacksonville Jaguars, getting outscored 13-0 after taking a 29-13 late-first-half lead. It was, as Frank Reich said, (sort of) quoting Dickens, "a tale of two halves.'' And if we're being honest, if Kenny Moore II hadn't stripped the ball from Jags' receiver Rashad Greene, Sr. on what looked like a potential game-winning drive by Jacksonville, this column would be filled with all kinds of nastiness and references to last year's repeated meltdowns.
"That was a weird win, huh?'' Anthony Castonzo said. "But we'll take it. Believe me, we'll take it.''
The second-half offensive brownout is/was mildly concerning, but the bottom line is this: The Colts will be a relevant AFC South player in the second half of this football season. This game was something of an inflection point, two teams coming in at 3-5, one team leaving with hope and the other doomed to a largely meaningless second half of the season. The Colts needed this game. The Jags needed this game. The Colts got it. And the Jags, now losers of five straight, are left looking for answers one season after reaching the AFC Championship Game.
True, the Colts have a bit of a climb to truly compete with the Texans, who stand at 6-3 and in first place in the AFC South. (Here's the part where I note that the Colts would be a whole lot closer if they had swallowed hard and accepted the tie with Houston several weeks back). But for all their flaws – and there are plenty – we have seen what we hoped to see from this group, and that's growth. They won four whole games last season. They have four victories already this season, play four of their last seven games at home and have plenty of chances to gain ground with four games against AFC South foes.
Improvement, though…yeah, there's been plenty of that.
The offensive line has now gone four straight games without allowing a sack, having not surrendered one since the first drive of the New England game. The running game wasn't great against Jacksonville Sunday – the Jags still have a high-level defense – but we've seen plenty of signs of maturation in recent weeks. Andrew Luck, who looked a bit tentative in the early weeks, played again like the guy we saw from 2012-14, and having a clean pocket most of the time surely helps. Eric Ebron scored three touchdowns (two by the pass and one run) and now has 10 touchdowns in this breakout year. Braden Smith and Mark Glowinski, who man the right side of the offensive line, have been heaven-sent – and who saw that coming?. And this defense, while it's not yet blessed with the kind of talent it will need to become a true contender, has made the kinds of plays it failed to make during that 1-5 start.
Two weeks ago, it was Darius Leonard with the strip and Colts' recovery late to put away Oakland.
Sunday, it was Kenny Moore II, who played a tremendous game in general and stripped Greene as the Jags were driving late for the go-ahead and likely winning touchdown.
Initially, Greene was ruled down by contact. And honestly, from my distant vantage point, it looked really, really close, the ball coming loose at just about the same time Greene's knee hit the ground. I thought it was too close to overturn, but shoot, I don't look that good in stripes, anyway.
"The most important thing about this game is the ball,'' Moore II said. "So you've got to do your best to take it away, got to do whatever you can do within the whistle…do your job. Being in a zone, they'll dink and dunk you all day, so you've got to play faster than them and smarter than them. Got to get the ball. I honestly saw it come out late (in the play) so I said, `Maybe.' Then they showed it on the big screen and I thought, `Yeah, they can overturn this.' ''
Nearby, Marlon Mack was walking from the locker room toward the shower and eyed Moore II, who was surrounded by media.
"Kenny Clutch,'' he said with a laugh.
Last year was a drudgery, a slow walk over broken glass. You knew how every game was going to go: The Colts would get a lead, look like world-beaters, then fall into tiny little pieces when it mattered most in the fourth quarter. This team – and heck yeah, it's a whole different game with Luck back in the lineup – brings a certain compelling mystery to these Sundays. Except for the New England loss, where they got torched for the most part, the Colts have competed every game, lost because of one or two key plays or won because of one or two key plays. The margin of error is agonizingly slim with this group, and we saw why that's true once again this Sunday.
"If there's typically four to eight plays in a game that are really significant, that are weighted more heavily than the others, we're just making more of those and they're carrying us,'' Frank Reich said. "Now we want to finish it off when we have an opportunity like that, but we're definitely making progress.''
There will be a lot of consternation about the Colts' second-half offensive performance, and for very good reason. They had two first downs. They were 1-of-5 on third downs. They possessed the ball for just eight minutes and 25 seconds in the second half. This wasn't a matter of Reich going conservative and sitting on a lead, which is always the fan default option. It was a matter of mistakes. Penalties and negative plays put the Colts behind the chains. There was a Nyheim Hines pass drop that would have gotten a drive moving. There was Mo Alie-Cox's bobble of an easy, on-target pass that resulted in a Jacksonville interception.
Not to worry.
They will score their points. Keeping opponents off the board is the greater long-term concern.
Most relevant, though, is the Colts are now, well…relevant. They are 4-5 (should be 4-4-1, and no, I won't stop yapping about that decision) and their performance will matter than final seven games. The playoffs are a distant dream still, but at least this team and its fans can dare to dream. That's a start in and of itself.