By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Donald Brown's forehead was dotted with a good-sized red welt and a spot of blood in the Lucas Oil Stadium locker room on Sunday — a souvenir from his first start of the season.
The Indianapolis Colts running back's look matched his playing style, rough and gritty. He gained just 54 yards on 14 carries against the Tennessee Titans, but his 4-yard touchdown run with 1:56 remaining in the fourth quarter sealed the 22-14 victory.
A day later, during a media conference call, he was far more excited about playing at the end of the game than at the beginning.
"I'm very grateful for (the start), but I'm more concerned with finishing strong and playing well," Brown said. "It doesn't matter who starts the game, it's how you finish."
The Colts' finish was spectacular. A surprising exclamation point at the end of a long and often ugly performance.
Indianapolis (8-4) led 15-14 with 8:08 remaining in the game after veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri tied a career high with five successful field goals. When the Colts took possession at their own 8-yard line following a Tennessee punt, they'd gained just 26 rushing yards on 16 carries.
But Indianapolis ran the ball nine times on the ensuing 11-play drive, with Brown's number being called on six occasions. He gained 46 yards, including a burst through the middle of the line and into the end zone on the final play.
It was a march that seemed completely out of place with the rest of the game. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
"The offensive line did a great job, and when our number is called, that was a challenge to us," Brown said. "We needed to grind the clock out. We needed to score a touchdown. That's what you practice for. That's what your mindset has to be if you want to be a successful running team."
The Colts finished with 104 yards rushing against the Titans. They're 7-1 this season when they top the century mark, and 1-3 when they fail.
That's not a major surprise after head coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton spent the offseason telling anyone within hearing distance they planned to build a power running attack. The fact that Brown is the leading man, however, qualifies as a shock.
Drafted in the first round in 2009 as Joseph Addai's replacement-in-waiting, Brown made just 15 starts in his first four seasons.
Labeled a bust, his days in Indianapolis appeared to be numbered when general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano took the reins of the franchise in 2012. An injury-plagued season in which he missed six games and rushed for 417 yards deepened those beliefs.
He began the offseason behind second-year running back Vick Ballard on the depth chart, then slid further down the list when Ahmad Bradshaw was signed as a free agent. After both were lost for the season with injuries, Grigson dealt a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Richardson, and Brown again was after-thought.
But he never gave up on himself.
Through 12 games, Brown is averaging a career-high 5.3 yards per carry and has stolen away the starting spot from Richardson. Just don't expect to hear much about it from the laconic former University of Connecticut star.
"He is the ultimate team guy," Indianapolis outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. "He doesn't like to talk about himself because he's not his favorite subject. He just goes to work, and he just lets his play do all the talking."
Brown welcomed the additions at running back because he believes they strengthen the offense as a whole. Instead of feeling threatened, he focused on what he could do to help the team and kept faith his opportunity would come.
Now he's the No. 1 option in the backfield as Indianapolis enters the stretch run to the playoffs. One more win — or one loss by the Titans — will clinch the team's eighth AFC South title in the past 11 years.
Another game with huge postseason implications awaits Sunday at Cincinnati (8-4), where the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs will be on the line.
In typical fashion, Brown adds little hype to the task ahead. After all, he's learned first-hand the values of hard work and patience.
"We just want to give ourselves a chance," Brown said, "and at the end of the day, we want to control our own destiny."