INDIANAPOLIS — All seven of the Indianapolis Colts’ games this season have been decided by one score.
It’s a rare run of close calls, even in the parity-drenched NFL.
But it says something about this young team that it’s won five of those contests. Even if the players themselves can’t quite put a finger on the reasons behind that success.
“I don’t know,” left tackle Anthony Castonzo said with a laugh. “We’ve got a one-play mentality. It’s the next play regardless of what’s going on, whether we’re up, whether we’re down. (We’re) just focusing on trying to do our jobs the next play, and that’s what it is every time.”
That’s the desired outcome of head coach Frank Reich’s often celebrated “1-0” mentality.
But the reasons behind Indianapolis’ 5-2 start go beyond a mindset. The Colts are playing very well in situational football.
Even after going 4-for-12 on third down Sunday against the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis ranks 10th in the NFL with a 45.2% conversion rate. The Colts have been even better in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on 66.7% of their trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line — a figure that’s tied for third in the league.
On defense, it’s a similar story.
Though Indianapolis ranks 16th on third down (39.2%) and 18th in the red zone (56.5%) for the season, the numbers have been mighty impressive during the current three-game winning streak.
In victories against the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans and Broncos, the Colts have allowed just a 27.8% success rate on third down and opponents have scored a touchdown on just 33% of their red-zone trips.
Those are signs of the growth occurring within a young defense, and that’s an ongoing process.
“You go through close battles, you learn to trust and believe as things get tougher and all that stuff,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “And that’s what (kicker Adam Vinatieri) talked about after the (Denver) game. These are the ones that mean the most because you learn how to battle through it together as a team.”
Each week has presented a different challenge.
The win at Kansas City was a defensive tour de force with Indianapolis holding the home team to its lowest point total (13) with wunderkind Patrick Mahomes as the starting quarterback.
Two weeks later, the offense led the way in a home win against Houston. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett set career highs for passing yards (326) and touchdown passes (four).
Then, against Denver on Sunday, almost nothing went right. The Colts stumbled through most of the first 58 minutes before driving for Vinatieri’s game-winning 51-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining.
Indianapolis found three unique ways to win in games decided by a total of 15 points.
“Every week is kind of like, ‘Just find a way to win this game whatever that means — whatever personality the game takes on,’” Reich said. “There is something to gain from winning close games. You get a confidence in that when you are in a close game and you’re like, ‘OK, well, we’ve dealt with this.’ In the other respect, you are just learning and just trying to be productive every time you step out there.”
Sunday is likely to provide another opportunity to put that experience to good use.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (3-4) are starting to find their footing without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and have won three of their last four games.
The Steelers’ defense ranks seventh in the NFL, surrendering an average of 5.1 yards per play. And they’ve been opportunistic.
Pittsburgh has forced 19 turnovers, including four in Monday night’s victory against the Miami Dolphins and five in a 24-20 loss against the undefeated San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 22.
Ball security figures to play a major role in Sunday’s game, and the Colts understand the tradition they’re up against.
“You’d be crazy not to (expect another close battle),” Walker said. “Much respect for Coach (Mike) Tomlin. (I’ve) always looked up to him, as his teams play well, play hard. If you go into a game thinking anything less than that, then you don’t know the Steelers. So we’ve gotta go in there with the right mindset.”
It’s worked more often than not thus far.
As the Colts reported to training camp in late July, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton boldly stated this would be the best team he’s played on during his eight seasons in Indianapolis.
As the midway point nears, the close victories help back up the four-time Pro Bowler’s opinion.
He believes confidence and clutch performance have been the common denominators in his team’s success.
“No matter whenever we need a play — offense, defense and special teams — we always seem to make that play,” Hilton said. “And that’s the difference with us winning and not losing.”