By George Bremer
CNHI News Service
T.Y. Hilton was the 13th wide receiver taken in April’s NFL draft.
Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson traded back into the bottom of the third round to select the Florida International star because he saw a player with game-breaking speed.
During Sunday’s crucial 20-13 victory against the Buffalo Bills at Lucas Oil Stadium, the rest of the world saw it, too.
Hilton broke free for a 75-yard touchdown on a punt return in the first quarter and added an 8-yard touchdown reception late in the third — becoming the first player in Colts history to record that scoring combo — as Indianapolis (7-4) strengthened its position in the AFC playoff race.
“Those things, big plays like that, normally turn games,” Bills head coach Chan Gailey said of Hilton’s return TD, “and it certainly turned momentum with that play.”
In a game Buffalo (4-7) likely had to win to remain a factor in the postseason chase, Hilton’s return with 9:56 remaining in the first quarter gave the Colts the lead. A rejuvenated pass rush, led by outside linebackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, helped them keep it.
“Mathis and Freeney are well known, obviously, especially at home, for creating some havoc,” Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “They did a really nice job. There were times when we tried to get chips on them and just varying the snap count a little bit, not letting those guys get off on us. I thought those guys are really good players over there, and they did a really good job today.”
So did inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. He led the team for the ninth time in 11 games with 16 tackles and added one sack. His sideline-to-sideline speed was a key factor in keeping Buffalo’s screen game in check.
“You can’t say enough about Free,” Indianapolis interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “He is a quality, quality football player, and I’m sure glad he’s on our team. He’s fast, and he can run with these guys.”
The Bills gained just 304 yards of total offense and didn’t score a touchdown until the 11:30 mark of the fourth quarter when Fitzpatrick connected with wide receiver Lee Smith on a 1-yard pass.
“They didn’t give them anything on defense,” Arians said, “hung in there when they had to.”
The Colts offense made plays when it had to as well.
Indianapolis was clinging to a 10-6 lead late in the second quarter when the defense forced the Bills to punt from their own 12-yard line. The Colts took over at their own 49 with 32 seconds to play and marched the ball to the Buffalo 1.
Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne — who set an NFL record with at least three receptions for the 59th straight game — was tackled short of the goal line on a second-and-goal pass from the 3. With no timeouts left, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck rushed the offense to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball with one second remaining.
Adam Vinatieri made the 19-yard field goal to give the Colts a seven-point halftime lead.
Indianapolis added to that advantage with an 87-yard drive that ate 8:04 off the third-quarter clock. Luck converted four third-down chances on the march, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hilton on third-and-goal.
“We need more of those drives,” Luck said. “I realize that. As an offense, we realize that. But I think when we needed it most we got that drive and ended it with a four-minute drive or whatever you want to call it. We need more of those types of drives.”
Trailing again by seven, Buffalo drove to the Indianapolis 36-yard line with 4:43 remaining in the game. Safety Tom Zbikowski intercepted Fitzpatrick’s second-down pass, but he fumbled the ball back to the Bills at their 47.
Forced to stop Buffalo again, the defense allowed two net yards on the next three plays and caused a punt with 3:32 to play. The Colts offense took over at its own 5 and used an 11-yard run by Donald Brown, a 14-yard reception by Reggie Wayne and a pass interference penalty against Bills rookie Stephon Gilmore to run out the clock.
The win, coupled with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ loss to the Cleveland Browns, gives the Colts a one-game lead for the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs with five regular season games remaining.
Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano, preparing for his third and final round of chemotherapy to fight leukemia, again was in attendance. He waved to fans from owner Jim Irsay’s suite during the fourth quarter and received a loud ovation.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the football team because Chuck was here, and the goal was to make him smile when he left,” Arians said. “And I’m sure he’s up there (in Irsay’s suite) smiling.”