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COLUMN

Colts' shaky win still counts in cluttered AFC

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For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Indianapolis moves to 3-3, a small step forward

Monday, October 22, 2012 - 9:56 am

INDIANAPOLIS – A slim win over the Cleveland Browns counts the same as a magical win over the Green Bay Packers. I confirmed it with the NFL.

Now, the satisfaction level is different. The Indianapolis Colts' 17-13 win over the Browns on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium seemed more like an escape than a triumph. In contrast, the win over the Packers two weeks ago was exhilaration overload.

In fact, the Colts' win over the Browns was eclipsed by the post-game Jim Irsay announcement that ailing coach Chuck Pagano had been released from the hospital. Both interim coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Andrew Luck called that the best news of the day. No doubt it was.

Yet here's the bottom line for the Colts: They're 3-3 today. They could lament letting that Jacksonville game get away on Sept. 23, but that's canceled out by the unexpected win over the Packers. Over the course of the season, flawed teams will win and lose games they shouldn't.

The issue for a team like the Colts is whether they're moving forward. After last Sunday's two-steps-back loss to the Jets, surviving against the Browns counts as forward motion. Slow motion, perhaps. But forward nonetheless.

“A couple throws we'd like to have back,” Arians said. “A couple calls I'd like to have back, a timeout I'd like to have back. …But other than that, I'm pretty pleased with everybody's effort.”

I'm not about to argue that the Colts look like a playoff team. They don't, if you're talking about playoff teams in the traditional sense. Luck looks great at times, and he'll be the real deal eventually, but he has missed some throws the last couple weeks that playoff quarterbacks can't miss.

The defense played well the second half, forcing Cleveland to punt repeatedly. Yet in the first half and early in the third quarter, Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden had so much time in the backfield, he often paused and texted his friends back home before throws. He threw a pair of touchdown passes and would have had a third if Josh Gordon hadn't dropped a pass deep.

But it might not come down to whether you look like a playoff team. The AFC has only two teams (the Texans and Ravens) with fewer than three losses. Everyone's in the running right now. It's a parity party.

“There's a big old cluster of teams,” Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. “That puts us right in the hunt.”

Watching how the Colts were destroyed by the Jets, playoff dreams seem farfetched. Yet the next three games (at Tennessee, home against Miami and at Jacksonville) could be won. The Colts have to show they can play as well offensively on the road as they do about half of every game at home. But the opportunity is there.

Perhaps the biggest positive in the win over the Browns – dampened only because they were playing the Browns – was the emergence of a running game.

The Colts had 37 running plays to 29 passes, a balance that hadn't been seen all season. Rookie running back Vick Ballard rushed for 84 yards, including a nice 26-yard breakaway that helped seal the deal at the end. Delone Carter added 41. Even Luck used his legs, rushing for two touchdowns. "I think he wanted to let RG3 know he can run also," Wayne said.

The Colts' first two scoring drives – their only touchdown drives – were 11- and 14-play drives. The last one, which ended with an Adam Vinatieri field goal, took 17 plays.

That's the kind of dominance that can help a beat-up defense. The Colts couldn't sustain it, turning into the Pat McAfee Show the second half. But promise is there.

“No matter how, that was a better balanced football team for us and we have to stay that way,” Arians said. “We can't be one-dimensional and we don't want to be.”

There were other bright spots, including safety Tom Zbikowski, who broke up two passes and made a real impact for the first time this season. Linebacker Pat Angerer returned with a couple solo tackles and a couple quarterback hits. Jerraud Powers broke up a late-game pass attempt from Weeden to Josh Cooper that put the game firmly in the Colts' grasp.

I'm still on the fence over Arians' coaching. I'm sold on the no-huddle offense and most of the time I like his inclination to be aggressive. His timeout at the end of the half was ridiculous, compounded by 12 men on the field. The Colts burned two timeouts with formation issues. That needs fixed.

Luck's inconsistency remains a concern. He can look so good at times, but some of his throws are way off and he had a potentially critical turnover when he fumbled after being hit by the Browns' Sheldon Brown. The defense saved him by not allowing a short-field score.

“We just lose focus (with) dumb, mental errors,” Luck said. “I'm the biggest culprit out there on offense. I know it has to be fixed if we're going to stack wins together. I'm glad we got this one, though.”

I'd call it a homely home win. And it counts the same as beating the Packers.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.