The Indianapolis Colts are establishing a troubling, but successful formula.
As in previous games against the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts got off to a fast start and then limped to the finish, barely holding off the Cleveland Browns 17-13 in the process.
A second look at the tape explains why the Colts' offense trailed off so badly late in the game.
The Real Story
The Colts had control of this contest most of the afternoon, but failed on a couple of key conversions and let the Browns hang around.
Indy scored on three of the first four possessions of the game to build a 17-13, but the offensive line started to break down in pass protection, and once the Browns keyed on taking away Reggie Wayne, Andrew Luck was left with no one to throw to.
The Indy defense revealed both its strength and weaknesses in the second half. There are still way too many breakdowns in coverage, but the interior linebackers are solid in the run game.
Against a team with a limited ability to pass like Cleveland, that's a good enough formula to win.
If the Colts are going to take another step forward in 2012, it's going to come from consistent execution for an entire ball game.
Both Vick Ballard and Delone Carter ran the ball effectively, though Carter's awful effort on 3rd-and-1 with five minutes to play in the fourth quarter was inexcusable.
Once again, Reggie Wayne was tremendous, and Andrew Luck's play on the first three drives was strong.
The combination of Kavell Conner, Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman was stout against the run all game long.
Jerraud Powers made a huge play on fourth down to preserve the win, but all in all he had a difficult day.
Mewelde Moore was ineffective. Yards were left on the field every time he touched the ball.
The defensive front was credible against the run, but the lack of any discernible pass rush was disturbing.
With 4:16 to play in the game, Pat McAfee boomed a 52-yard punt to the always dangerous Josh Cribbs.
LaVon Brazill was the gunner on the play and had to make a do-or-die play on Cribbs to avoid a long return that could have set Cleveland up for a go-ahead score.
Brazill made an incredible stop with no other Colt within 20 yards of Cribbs.
Bruce Arians went for it on fourth down! A week after playing timid, he smartly had the Colts line up for a fourth-down conversion in the second quarter.
Granted, there was a zero percent chance Indy was going to run a play, but Arians' gambit paid off as Cleveland jumped offsides.
It helped set up another conversion try in the third quarter that was successful.
He also tried a bold move near the end of the first half, attempting a timeout with a few seconds left that would have forced a punt from Cleveland. Unfortunately for Arians, the execution of the strategy failed. After the game, he explained,
I was trying to get ahold of, I don’t have the button to our special teams coach, so I was trying to run down and catch him to call timeout with four seconds to make them kick the ball and just try to block it and see what happened. And with one we end up screwing our defense by having too many people out there and giving them the shot for the Hail Mary. That’s on me all the way.
Keep an Eye On...
The Colts are heading to Tennessee to play one of the worst defenses in football.
If the Colts can beat the Titans on the road, the sky (in this case defined as the playoffs) is the limit.
At 4-3 with games against the Jaguars, Chiefs, Bills, Titans again, Dolphins at home and a season-ender at home against a Texans team who may rest starters, there would be every reason to think Indianapolis could win the nine or 10 games necessary to make the playoffs.
However, if they can't beat Tennessee, there's little chance they finish in the top half of the AFC South.
Quote courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts via PR release.