By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — While Jeron Johnson and the Seahawks tried to convince officials Sunday that the Seattle safety had gained possession of a blocked punt in the end zone and should be awarded a touchdown, Colts safety Antoine Bethea rallied his troops on the opposite sideline.
It was a rare show of emotion from the eighth-year vet — who later said he's only tried the tactic once before, during the season-opening loss last year in Chicago. But with Indianapolis' deficit about to grow to 12-0 less than five minutes into the first quarter, Bethea felt he had to get something off his chest.
"It wasn't nice," he admitted Monday during a conference call with team reporters. "It was a little animated."
It also worked.
The Colts surged back to take a 14-12 lead early in the second quarter and won 34-28 after the ninth fourth-quarter rally in quarterback Andrew Luck's first 21 games.
Bethea was guarded about the specific words he used at Lucas Oil Stadium, but he shared the general message.
"Just felt like we weren't really playing our style of ball the way we really wanted to play," he said. "Just something needed to be said. Somebody needed to say something."
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has seen this before, on other sidelines in other cities. It's the mark of strong leadership, and it's just the latest evidence that his vision for this football team is coming to fruition.
For the first time since 2010 — and the first time since 1996 without a certain record-setting quarterback on the roster — Indianapolis is in sole possession of first place in the AFC South.
At 4-1, the Colts have a full game lead over Tennessee (3-2) and two games on struggling Houston (2-3). Just as importantly, the team has won three straight to kick off a six-game stretch that likely will define its season.
"Our goal is to win each game when it presents itself," said running back Donald Brown, whose 3-yard touchdown run finally put Indy in front for good in the fourth quarter Sunday. "Our ultimate goal is to win our division, and that'll give us a shot to make the playoffs. We just take it one game at a time, but we still have a lot of ball to play, and we're just excited about this next opportunity."
Over the next three weeks, the nation will get a good look at Pagano's emerging monster. It starts next Monday with a prime time road trip against the San Diego Chargers. Six days later comes a Sunday night date with Peyton Manning and the red-hot Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium. Then, after a bye, the Colts will travel for a Sunday-nighter against a Texans team that has won the past two division titles and is fighting mightily to right the ship for another run this year.
Recent wins over two of the NFC's best teams — San Francisco and Seattle — have Indianapolis drawing praise from all circles. Some experts even are beginning to talk about the Colts as the second-best team in the entire AFC, behind only Manning's Broncos.
It's heady stuff for a franchise that suffered through a 2-14 season just two short years ago. But Pagano will not allow his players to buy into the hype.
"We're not going there," he said. "We'll keep reminding them of it's a short ride from the penthouse to the outhouse. Stay humble. Stay grounded. Stay steady."
With leaders like Bethea around, that's not likely to be a problem.
He was a rookie when Indianapolis won Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season, and he was a starter by the time the Colts won their first 14 games en route to another AFC championship three years later.
So he understands this season's fight has just begun.
"We have some good teams in our division," Bethea said. "Tennessee is playing well. We know Houston is going to bounce back and play well. We just got to continue to do the things we've been doing so far and just keep playing well."
That message will be echoed by other veteran leaders such as outside linebacker Robert Mathis and wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Guys who were around for the franchise's glory years and know what it will take to relive them.
Pagano will rely on those players — and others such as defensive end Cory Redding and kicker Adam Vinatieri — to make certain early success doesn't spoil this season.
"They understand that they've been around the block too many times and seen it happen too many times," Pagano said. "Again, you start reading your own press clippings and patting yourself on the back, you're just setting yourself up for failure."