INDIANAPOLIS – They’ve been here before, and not that long ago.
Remember 2019? Remember the 15-13 win over the Denver Broncos in week 8 – Adam Vinatieri’s 51-yard field goal in the closing seconds sealed the deal – that pushed the Indianapolis Colts’ record to 5-2? Remember being tied for first place in the AFC South?
Of course you do.
Same place, different year.
Sunday’s 41-21 victory at Detroit sent the Colts to their second straight 5-2 start – they share the AFC South lead with the Tennessee Titans after standing alongside the Houston Texans 12 months ago – and some of the post-game discussion centered on whether history might repeat itself, or whether they learned anything from last season’s 2-7 finish.
The grin on Darius Leonard’s face widened as the question was being asked.
“New team, new season,’’ the heart and soul of the NFL’s 3rd-ranked defense said. “None of that should even matter.’’
All-Pro Quenton Nelson was in lockstep with Leonard.
“We’re just going to attack every single game,’’ he said. “We’re a different team. We’re not looking back.’’
Looking back, there were significant contributing factors to a team with early playoff aspirations going into a serious downward spiral.
Jacoby Brissett was extremely efficient during the 5-2 start – 14 TD passes, three interceptions, 64.8% completion rate – but never the same after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in a week 8 loss at Pittsburgh. His drop-off was exacerbated as injuries tore through the wide receiver room.
The defense, meanwhile, regressed and was unable to compensate as Kenny Moore II, one of the NFL’s top nickel corners, missed the final four games with an ankle injury.
And let’s not forget the season-long travails of Vinatieri and the kicking game.
The Colts found ways to win early. All five of their wins – and both losses – came in one-score games.
During the 2-7 finish, three of the losses were by 2, 4 and 3 points. They lost in week 13 to the Titans 31-17, but were in position to grab a 24-17 lead with 5 minutes to play only to have Vinatieri’s 46-yard field goal attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown.
Whatever could go wrong, went wrong, and the Colts failed to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
There’s no indication another fast fade looms, although an injury to key personnel – Rivers, Leonard, Moore, Anthony Castonzo, etc. – could change that.
Rivers has been more than good enough, especially when you consider he’s not had the expected luxury of a reliable run game. If coach Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni can figure out what’s wrong with the ground attack – 25th in yards per game (101) but 32nd in yards per attempt (3.5) – the offense should continue to improve and not be so reliant on their 38-year old QB1.
The defense has established itself as one of the league’s best: 3rd in yards per game and yards per play, 2nd against the run, 6th against the pass, 5th in scoring. It leads the league with 11 interceptions – Moore, Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie have pick-6s – and has produced a pair of safeties.
Rather than dwelling on what happened in ’19, the Colts are intent on taking care of business moving forward. That involved without question the toughest four-game stretch of the season. It starts Sunday when the 5-2 Baltimore Ravens visit Lucas Oil Stadium and continues with the home-and-home series with the 5-2 Titans sandwiched around a Nov. 22 meeting with 5-2 Green Bay at Lucas Oil.
Philip Rivers wasn’t part of the Colts’ second-half downward spiral last season. He was finishing up his decorated 16-year career with the Chargers.
As he was settling into his new home in central Indiana, Rivers allowed himself to pore over the Colts’ 16-game schedule. He undoubtedly noticed the Ravens/Titans/Packers/Titans gauntlet, but wasn’t overly concerned with the challenge it presented.
“We don’t play them all in one afternoon,’’ he joked following the win at Detroit. “So it is a tough stretch, but if you played them all on one Sunday, it’d be about undoable.
“But it’s one week at a time, one day at a time. They all stand alone. So we know what’s coming, but all that matters is – I know it’s a boring answer – but it’s 1-0 this week. We were able to accomplish that (at Detroit) and that’ll be the same goal when we host the Ravens next Sunday.’’
That’s the tunnel-vision approach instilled by Reich, and that clearly doesn’t involve a rearview mirror.
“Our MO, our DNA is to handle these situations, right? It’s get to 1-0 every week,’’ he said. “It’s get 1 percent better every week. That’s really all we focus on.
“I think we can learn from last year. We won’t talk too much about that, we really won’t. Last year was last year. It’s a different team. We are just going to focus on trying to build from where we are right now.’’
The 5-2 start, Rivers noted, has the Colts in position to do something.
“It’s still early,’’ he said. “We want to be sitting at the top (of the AFC South) when week 17 is over. We’re in position to have a chance to accomplish all we want to accomplish.
“That’s all you can ask for. Certainly I think it’s OK to have a few moments where . . . you kick yourself and go, ‘Dangummit, we should be 7-0.’ But we’re not. But we’re in a position where we have a chance to keep moving forward.’’
Reich said the team will monitor wideouts T.Y Hilton (groin) and Ashton Dulin (knee) as the week unfolds. Also, cornerback Rock Ya-Sin has been cleared by the NFL’s concussion protocol.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.