INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts may have salvaged their season Sunday.
By avoiding their first 0-3 start in five years, Indy will not have to dig itself out of an historic hole to make the playoffs. Nope, all they have to do now is catch the Houston Texans, who have a one-game lead in the AFC South over three other teams that have combined for only two wins this season.
“It’s huge,” coach Chuck Pagano said after Sunday’s 26-22 victory over San Diego. “Doomsday, soon thereafter. It isn’t, but it is.”
Pagano was aware of how much more trouble Indy (1-2) could have been in with a third consecutive loss. Under the current playoff format, established in 1990, only five teams that have started 0-3 made the postseason. The last was the 1998 Buffalo Bills.
So if the Colts do make it back to the playoffs, for the fourth time in five years, they will look back at T.Y. Hilton’s tackle-breaking 63-yard TD reception with 1:17 to play as the turning point.
Hilton had a huge day, catching eight passes for 174 yards and the winning score — his best statistical day since the 2014 season. And he saved the game twice — first with a spinning 8-yard catch on fourth-and-7 just after the 2-minute warning and then two plays later when Andrew Luck hit him in stride, allowing him to get free and zig-zag his way down the field.
“You need that first one to start stacking wins together,” Luck said. “It’s hard to verbalize how important it is, but I’m sure you can tell by my demeanor up here, it means a lot.”
Especially now that the Colts face a midseason trip to London, where they will take on Jacksonville with a chance to get back to .500.
Meanwhile, for San Diego (1-2), things may have gotten a lot tougher.
Starting inside linebacker Manti Te’o left in the first quarter with an Achilles tendon injury. Coach Mike McCoy said after the game that the former Notre Dame star will go through more tests Monday morning to determine the severity of the injury.
Here are some things learned from Sunday’s game:
GOOD HANDS?: Indy’s defense snuffed out one possible score with less than 2 minutes to go in the first half, thanks to Erik Walden’s strip sack. But on the ensuing series, the Chargers turned the tables by ripping the ball out of Luck’s arms. Caraun Reid then scooped it up and ran it back for a 61-yard TD return for the tying score. It’s the second straight week an opponent has scored off of a fumble by Luck — a trouble spot Indy must get fixed.
STRANGE DAYS: San Diego had its own problems with some strange calls. After taking a 55-yard field goal off the board when the Chargers were called for leverage, the Colts drove for a TD. Philip Rivers was 26 of 39 for 330 yards and was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after a 43-yard completion to the Colts 6-yard line that led to a field goal instead of a TD. Worse, Rivers may have set himself up for a fine when he said: “That’s the most unfair penalty I’ve ever gotten. I’ve never gotten one like that. I’ve never gotten one for really doing nothing. It maybe was the cleanest thing said on that field today and he (the official) was 30 yards away. From what I hear it looked like nothing on the TV, but I don’t know.” Playing smarter would help, too.
INJURIES HURT: After losing playmaking receiver Keenan Allen in Week 1 and versatile running back Danny Woodhead in Week 2, the Chargers’ offense didn’t look the same. Melvin Gordon followed up his first career 100-yard game by running 16 times for 35 yards and one TD, and Travis Benjamin had four catches for 82 yards. Rivers will have to continue spreading the ball around to make up for the absence of two key players.
THE STREAK: Frank Gore looked as though he was finally going to end the Colts’ streak of consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher at 52. Not so fast. After running 13 times for 70 yards and one TD in the first half, the Colts played the second half without their starting right tackle or starting right guard because of back injuries. The result: Gore ran eight times for 12 yards and Indy will try to snap its 53-game streak in London.