Andrew Luck doesn't believe in statement games. To Luck, a win is nothing more than that: a win. One game. Nothing more.
But in thrashing the San Francisco 49ers 27-7 on the road in front of a frothing crowd last Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts made a statement. Last season, with 11 wins and a playoff appearance, was no fluke. The Colts are for real. Every team in the AFC is chasing Denver, but Indianapolis is not that far behind.
Why? These aren't Peyton Manning's Colts anymore.
Less than two years into the Chuck Pagano era, Indianapolis has morphed into a power running team that smashes defenses up the gut. Whereas Manning's Colts thrived with a combination of speed and finesse on both sides of the ball, Luck's Colts are built on power and physicality. Manning's Colts had Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai, but in the 12 seasons after Manning's rookie year in 1999, Indianapolis finished in the top half of the league in rushing only twice.
Through three games this season, the Colts are ranked fourth in rushing yards, seventh in rushing attempts, first in rushing touchdowns and sixth in rushing yards per attempt. For the first time since 1989, Indianapolis has gained at least 100 yards rushing in each of its first three games. The Colts have had eight 10-play drives (tied for second most in the NFL) and six five-minute drives (first in the league). Their 31:24 average time of possession is the highest for a Colts team since 1997, and their 439 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns are the most for a Colts team since 1984.
With running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson, acquired in a trade last week with Cleveland, the Colts have become a smashmouth football team. They have recreated their identity without sacrificing success, and in doing so, they have created an offense in which Luck can continue to grow and thrive and, the idea is, take fewer hits.
Week 3 was just the highlight.
The 49ers were double-digit favorites heading into the game even after getting manhandled by their archrival, Seattle, the week before. The Colts knew no one expected them to win at Candlestick Park, where Colin Kaepernick had never lost in five starts. In two-plus seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh, the Niners had never lost back-to-back games.
The Colts felt disrespected and used that to beat San Francisco at its own game. The Niners were supposed to have the superior offensive line, running game and pass rush, and yet it was Indianapolis that imposed its will on San Francisco, not the other way around. The Colts were down six starters. They had to shuffle their offensive line. And yet they rushed for 179 yards, with Bradshaw and Richardson each getting significant snaps.
Indianapolis had given up seven sacks in its first two games but allowed only one against San Francisco. All three of the Colts' touchdowns were on running plays, including two in the fourth quarter. Leading only 13-7 with 11:14 to play, Luck led Indianapolis on an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took 7:01 off the clock and demoralized a defense known to be one of the most talented from front to back as any in the league.
The Colts' defense forced four three-and-outs and seven punts, sacked Kaepernick three times and limited him to 150 yards passing and 20 yards rushing.
"We know our head coach, Chuck [Pagano], has been preaching from day one: 'Follow the process. Follow the plan,'" Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" show on Tuesday. "We want to be a physical football team. We were matched up against one of the best in the league.
"[Pagano] had been talking to the team about, 'Who are we?'" Grigson added. "We were trying to find our identity, and this game really helped identify who we are. I felt like we came together on both sides of the ball -- really all three phases as a team -- and meshed. We have a lot of new faces on this team, and we kind of came together. It was a great test. We went out there very focused. We were on a business trip. We played such a great, talented NFL team, but we stuck with the plan and ended up with the win. It was a great win for the organization."
There will be more.
Of Indianapolis' remaining opponents, only two rank in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing defense: Denver is No. 1 and Arizona is No. 3. On Sunday, the Colts will face Jacksonville, which has the league's worst run defense. The next true test will be a Week 5 matchup at home with Seattle, which has the No. 1 overall defense in the league and is 12th against the run.
How will Indianapolis attack its upcoming challenges? The Colts have found their path to success. Under Pagano, they are 8-0 when rushing at least 30 times in a game.
The Colts have become a power rushing team. Statement made.