INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday’s Colts/Titans game was drunker than your average Nashville bachelorette party on Broadway street.
Well, the Colts (7-5) hangover will feel a lot better than the Titans (4-8) on Monday morning.
What did we learn from the Colts winning a wild one in overtime, 31-28, on Sunday afternoon?
FIVE THINGS LEARNED
1. Somehow, SomewaySource:Getty
-Somehow, Someway: I can’t state it much better than the opening sentence above: Sunday’s game was one of the wilder ones you’ll ever see. And, once again, the Colts left victorious, sweeping the Titans on the season, and already hitting the Vegas over/under on wins (7) with 5 weeks left in the season. Sunday’s victory for the Colts gives them their longest win streak (4 games) since the 2018 season. Something of this length was needed to get back into serious playoff contention, and Sunday meant a little more because it falls in the divisional/conference categories win, too. This 2023 schedule was always going to offer on-paper hope. But on-paper hope doesn’t lead to definite on-field results. Yet, no matter the prettiness of these games (a made Titans extra point turns this game the other way), the Colts have taken care of these bottom feeders, which is no guarantee. And with that, the Colts are now 2 games above .500, and maintain their Wild Card playoff spot. As we look ahead to the final 5 games, it’s possible the Colts won’t face another starting quarterback until C.J. Stroud in the season finale, as Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett left Sunday’s game due to injury (Colts vs. Steelers on 12/16). In order to play meaningful December games, you have to create your own opportunities and the Colts have done that by now winning 5 of their 6 games away from home this season.
2. Alec Pierce’s Career DaySource:Getty
Alec Pierce’s Career Day: Is Alec Pierce a bust? That question has been asked quite a few times in 2023. But Sunday was a reminder that Pierce has a specific skill set, and when coupled with a capable quarterback, he can be quite the weapon. Entering Sunday, Pierce had caught just 22 balls in 11 games this season, but Sunday showed how much impact he can have on a game, even in a few targets. Pierce struck early with a 36-yard touchdown (his first of the year) as the second-year pro got behind the Titans secondary to haul in a perfectly thrown ball by Gardner Minshew. And then in overtime, Pierce hauled in a 55-yarder to set-up the game-winning touchdown two plays later. When Anthony Richardson was drafted, Pierce was thought to be a big-time weapon, pairing AR’s strength as a deep ball thrower to a strong deep-ball catcher in Pierce. But that, of course, hasn’t played out. With Minshew, accurate shots down the field aren’t as abundant so that has limited Pierce’s production. But it was felt in a major way on Sunday. On a side note, both of those Pierce deep balls came right after Titans penalties (along with the flea flicker to Kylen Granson), which is such a great idea by Shane Steichen to try and strike while a defense is reeling a bit. On a day when the run game was non-existent and red-zone struggles plagued the Colts, these deep balls from Pierce were vital.
3. Blocked Punt PartySource:Getty
Blocked Punt Party: Ah, so that is the block punting pedigree Brian Mason had at Notre Dame, and was on display Sunday with the Colts. Fittingly, in a game that was starting to get pretty slug-y late in the 3rd quarter, it was consecutive big-time special teams play that turned it in the Colts direction. With the Titans punting for a 4th straight possession, the Colts found the spark by overloading the left side of the punt block formation, which sprung second-year safety Nick Cross free. In what was Cross’ finest play as a pro, he all but took the ball off of the right foot of Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse. With the easy block, there was special teams ace Grant Stuard to pick up the block and return that blocked punt for the go-ahead touchdown. Ever since starting his first game as a rookie, it’s been a downhill NFL experience for Cross, relegated to pretty much only playing on special teams. But this play showed off the elite athleticism the Colts saw in him coming out of Maryland. And then on the very next drive, first-year Mason dialed up Tony Brown to come blitzing from off his gunner spot, with the Titans not even accounting for him. It was another easy block (although they ruled it a fumble by Stonehouse), as Brown went untouched for the block. How many times do you see a team block two punts in an NFL game? Especially as easy as the Colts made it look. What a day for Mason and his unit.
4. Really Bad, Then Really Good From Gardner MinshewSource:Getty
Really Bad, Then Really Good From Gardner Minshew: First, there is zero denying the big-time throws Gardner Minshew made in overtime—first to Alec Pierce and then the game-winner to Michael Pittman Jr. But that 2-play snippet can’t overshadow another struggling day for Minshew. No matter Sunday’s result, the Colts are once again having to overcome the play of Gardner Minshew, with two Sunday turnovers falling in the costly category (a fumble in field-goal range, and then an interception on a 2-point conversion attempt). Yes, Minshew is largely a career backup, but he has played at much more of a consistently high standard than he’s playing for the Colts right now. While the Colts have put themselves in playoff position as of late, they haven’t done it because Minshew is giving them his normal/competent level of quarterback play. In one way, that’s impressive by the Colts (and an indication of the schedule the Colts have played). In another way, it’s why many are skeptical of how serious of playoff contenders this Minshew-led team is. This issue is even more on the table exiting Sunday, with NFL Network reporting that Jonathan Taylor’s return to playing will be in the 3-to-5 week range, compared to the “hopeful, 2-to-3 week range” which was the original report from Jim Irsay. If Taylor is missing 3 weeks, that would take him off the field for these games: at Titans on Sunday, at Bengals, Steelers, and then have him returning for the Falcons game (3.5 weeks post surgery). That would be a huge, huge bummer, because the Bengals and Steelers carry some major playoff weight, compared to the Falcons game. And if Taylor misses the full 5 weeks, he would be out until the season finale against the Texans (5.5 weeks post surgery). Running the ball isn’t a given, with or without Taylor (as the Colts saw on Sunday), so this team has to rely on better Minshew play to keep this train moving in the right direction in December.
5. Colts Need Big GroveSource:Getty
Colts Need Big Grove: Should they have rose petals laid out at the Colts Complex to welcome Grover Stewart? Sunday was the 6th and final game Stewart is suspended for, and the Colts (once again) felt the absence of the man in the middle of their defensive line. A huge reason why the Titans built a two-score lead early on, and had a golden chance to win this one came from Derrick Henry (who left early in the 4th quarter) running 21 times for 102 yards and Tyjae Spears adding 75 yards on 16 carries. While Stewart, obviously, put himself in this costly position to the team, his absence also painted an obvious picture of what he means to the Colts. It’s rare to see one player mean so much to a team’s run defense, but the numbers are staggering for the Colts defense in stopping the run with, or without, Stewart. The good news is a rested-up Stewart is back next week for the final 5 games of the year, and the Colts survived his absence on Sunday. That’s important to go along with more and more defensive line playmaking in the pass rush game, which we saw against the Titans.
6. QUICK HITTERSSource:Getty
-Injury Report: The following Colts were inactive on Sunday: RB-Jonathan Taylor (right thumb) CB-JuJu Brents (quad), OL-Arlington Hambright, LB-Cameron McGrone, WR-Juwann Winfree, OL-Jack Anderson, DE-Isaiah Land. The following players got injured and did not return: RT-Braden Smith (knee).
–Key Stat: Both Michael Pittman Jr. (11 catches for 105 yards) and Alec Pierce (3 for 100 yards) went over 100 yards on Sunday.
-What’s Next: The Colts (7-5) are on the road again in Week 14, taking on the Bengals (5-6) on Sunday afternoon. Cincinnati will be coming off a short week, as they play Jacksonville on Monday Night Football this week.