By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — The fourth quarter Sunday at famed Candlestick Park began ominously.
Clinging to a 13-7 lead with his offense facing fourth-and-9 at San Francisco's 33-yard line, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano sent in the kicking team. The venerable stadium is notorious as a wind cavern, and the gusts pushed Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard attempt wide to the left.
It was the kind of moment that can haunt a team. The sort of thing that gets replayed on the nightly highlight shows and causes fans to curse fate.
But not this time. Not with Indianapolis suddenly showing it's more ChuckStrong than ever.
Instead of mounting a demoralizing comeback, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers were limited to just seven plays on their next two possessions. And by the time San Francisco got the football back for a 10-play march with 2:55 remaining, the Colts already had put their 27-7 victory on ice.
Andrew Luck capped an 80-yard drive on the possession after the missed field goal with a 6-yard touchdown run, then linebacker Jerrell Freeman forced a Kaepernick fumble on a third-down sack and Indianapolis recovered at the Niners' 8-yard line.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw powered in from the 1 three plays later, and San Francisco was on its way to back-to-back losses for the first time in head coach Jim Harbaugh's three-year tenure.
"We had to make a statement," defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. "We knew it was going to be a Frazier-Ali fight. But we had to make sure we got the last punch in."
That the Colts were even able to stand in the middle of the ring and exchange haymakers with one of the NFL's most physical teams was a testament to the job Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson have done of remaking this roster in the head coach's image.
When he was hired nearly 21 months ago, Pagano said he wanted to field a team that hit hard for 60 minutes on both sides of the ball. He wanted to play an old-fashioned smashmouth style that would leave an impression on opponents long after the final gun. And, most importantly, he wanted the team's performance to be something its fans could take pride in.
On Sunday, in every facet, it was mission accomplished.
"Great team win," Pagano told the media Monday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "Great win for this city. Great win for our fans. Great win for the organization. Unbelievable. But we all understand it's a marathon, it's not a sprint."
The victory moved the Colts (2-1) into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South with the Texans and Titans. But it was just the start of a seven-week stretch that will define this season.
Indianapolis visits Jacksonville (0-3) this weekend then hosts Seattle (3-0), travels to San Diego (1-2) and hosts Denver (2-0 entering Monday night's game against the Raiders) before the bye week on Oct. 27. The gauntlet ends Nov. 3 with a divisional showdown at Houston.
It's a slate of games that will reveal the character of this team. On Sunday, the Colts discovered their identity.
The game-breaking drive began at Indianapolis' 20-yard line with 11:14 to play in the game. A week earlier, the Colts failed to hold a 20-17 third-quarter lead and a late fourth-quarter drive stalled at Miami's 23-yard line in a 24-20 loss to the Dolphins.
This time around, Indianapolis relied on the balance offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has been seeking and marched to victory.
The first eight plays of the drive were split evenly among runs and passes, including penalties against the 49ers for pass interference and defensive holding that led to first downs. Once Indianapolis reached midfield, it dropped the hammer.
The Colts ran five consecutive times beginning at the Niners' 47-yard line, with Bradshaw gaining 41 of his game-high 95 rushing yards on the first four carries.
The play that ended the drive was as old-school as they come, a naked bootleg on which Luck got blocks from left tackle Anthony Castonzo and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton on his way into the end zone.
The original call was for a handoff up the middle, but Hamilton added an option to it for the quarterback keeper.
"We were running so hard so well, our guys do such a great job that they have to respect Ahmad, (fullback) Stanley Havili," Luck said. "We were fortunate that T.Y. did a great job of getting the corner out of there."
After the touchdown, the defense took over. A secondary that blanketed San Francisco's receivers all afternoon again forced Kaepernick to hold onto the ball in the pocket. Freeman came blitzing in through the middle of the offensive line and knocked the ball free from the quarterback. Fellow inside linebacker Kavell Conner — making his first appearance of the season — recovered it, and the Colts had their statement win.
In Indianapolis, there's hope this is just the beginning.
"Our guys went out there with a chip on their shoulder," Pagano said. "You know why they had a chip on their shoulder and why they played — I mean, they're going to play week in and week out — but to see a locker room like that and a plane full of smiling faces and to be able to go do something that nobody thought we could go do, pretty gratifying. So really happy for all those guys, but again, we got to put that one behind us. 24-hour rule is in effect. This one is over, and we already started our preparation on Jacksonville."