Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton finally found his missing old-school, power rushing attack in a 30-27 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night. It was behind the couch the whole time.
Hamilton tried and failed to instill confidence in a struggling Trent Richardson, dialing up five first-half receptions to put the ball in his indecisive tailback's hands away from the mosh pit in the middle of the field.
When an eye issue sent Brown to the bench for a breather after 32 yards on four chain-moving carries, it was telling that Hamilton opted for a Stanley Havili fullback dive over a Richardson plunge on a key third down. The same mistrust in Richardson was evident on a play-action pass to Coby Fleener that led to Brown's game-sealing 11-yard touchdown four plays later.
At the beginning of the third quarter, the Colts had been outscored 66-9 by a trio of backup quarterbacks in their last three first halves. By the end of the game, they had rediscovered a ground attack that lay dormant since Richardson took over as the alleged power-back savior in Week 4.
The Colts all but locked up the AFC South with the victory. The re-emergence of Brown as a life-giving force in the backfield has restored a much-needed balance that will give this team more than a puncher's chance in the playoffs.
Here's what else we learned in Thursday's game:
1. Smart fans don't want to accept the simplistic notion that any player is a "winner," but Andrew Luck is exactly that. He has not lost consecutive games since his freshman year at Stanford. When his team's back is against the wall, he takes matters into his own hands -- as evidenced by his six rushing touchdowns in eight games following losses. Unable to step into throws due to poor pass protection, Luck continually showed an ability to turn busted plays into positive situations. In 186 career games, Tom Brady has seven wins after trailing by 12-plus points. In 26 career games, Luck has six such wins. Viewed in another light, one-third of Indianapolis' 18 wins over the past two years have come via Luck's comeback heroics.
2. Coby Fleener doesn't share injured teammate Dwayne Allen's ability to make contested catches in traffic, but Luck and Hamilton did an excellent job of getting the ball in his hands with a chance to use his high-end speed after the catch. Setting a career high in receptions (eight) and yards (107), Fleener became the first Colts tight end to reach 100 yards since Jacob Tamme in 2010. Fleener's game thrives off the play-action fakes afforded by Brown's threat to run.
3. The Colts might insist they would pull the trigger on the Richardson trade all over again, but their actions say otherwise. After averaging 15 carries and 46 yards (3.04 YPC) in his first five games with the team, those numbers have plummeted to seven carries and 15 yards (2.09 YPC) over the past three weeks. Richardson now is averaging 3.36 yards per on 394 career carries. How long can he last at that level of futility? No running back of the modern era has had 1,000-plus rushing attempts at less than 3.4 yards per carry.
4. After Chris Johnson had exploited gaping holes for 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter, NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock opined that it was the "best burst and acceleration" he had seen from CJ2K all season -- and perhaps going back to 2010. Those holes soon closed. As the Colts played keep-away following a 17-3 Titans lead late in the second quarter, Johnson didn't see the ball again until the Titans were trailing 23-17 more than a quarter later. He was stuffed for just six yards on four carries as the Titans went one-dimensional in the second half.
5. Delanie Walker shattered his career highs with 10 receptions, 91 yards and one touchdown in a Titans aerial attack that was limited primarily to crossing routes. At one point in the third quarter, Ryan Fitzpatrick had completed 12 passes -- all to Walker or Kendall Wright. In fact, Fitzpatrick had not even targeted another player to that point.
6. Kenny Britt was once again a non-factor, a fact which apparently did not sit well with the wide receiver in a lost season. NFL Media's Alex Flanagan reported that Britt was not only the last player to leave the field, but he also had to be coaxed off the bench and into the locker room after the game.
7. The Colts came out in the second half with LaVon Brazill joining T.Y. Hilton in two-wide receiver sets, with Darrius Heyward-Bey on the bench. David Reed and Griff Whalen saw time in three-wide formations. It's not clear if Heyward-Bey's absence was due to ineffectiveness or a first-half ankle injury.