This time the Indianapolis Colts finished the job.
Michael Pittman Jr. made another highlight-reel touchdown catch, Xavier Rhodes pulled off a gutsy interception and Darius Leonard swatted away a 2-point conversion as the Colts exorcised the ghosts of their most recent prime time performance and held on for a 30-18 victory against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night in Santa Clara, California.
The defining moment came with 2:56 remaining in the fourth quarter. Nursing a five-point lead, the Colts (3-4) faced third-and-10 at San Francisco’s 28-yard line. In a similar situation two weeks ago against the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich chose the conservative route, called a run and watched the ensuing field goal get blocked.
The Ravens drove for a tying touchdown and 2-point conversion and won the game 31-25 in overtime. This time Reich was determined to throw the ball, and quarterback Carson Wentz and Pittman made him look like a genius.
The 49ers (2-4) played zone coverage, and the second-year wide receiver got a free release off the line of scrimmage. Seeing just one defender between Pittman and the end zone, Wentz lofted the ball up and let his target go get it. Pittman high-pointed the ball, knocking over the San Francisco defensive back in the process, then leapt into the end zone for the game-clinching score.
“I think you go back to my college days, and honestly I think that’s why they drafted me here,” Pittman said. “And last year we couldn’t really get it going for whatever reason but brought in Carson, and Carson just loves to throw it deep. And I love it, too.”
On a night that featured persistent heavy rains and occasional wind gusts, the Colts’ willingness to remain aggressive paid off again and again.
Each of Indianapolis’ first three touchdowns were set up in part by a pass interference penalty, and Wentz perfectly dropped a 57-yard pass into Pittman’s hands to set the tone in the first quarter. Pittman finished with four catches for 105 yards, and running back Jonathan Taylor rushed 18 times for 107 yards and two scores as the 2020 draft classmates continued their upward climb.
But it wasn’t an easy ride against San Francisco.
With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo back from a calf injury, the 49ers drove 78 yards on eight plays for a 14-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Elijah Mitchell and a 6-0 lead just 4:48 into the opening quarter. Things got worse for the visitors on the ensuing possession when Taylor coughed up the football on the first snap and the Niners recovered at Indy’s 28-yard line.
The Colts defense held for a field goal, but the team still faced a two-score deficit with 8:08 left in the first quarter.
Indianapolis was not shaken. After the 57-yard bomb to Pittman – on which the Colts declined a pass interference flag – Wentz hit tight end Mo Alie-Cox for an 11-yard touchdown, and the offense was off and running.
There were a couple more blips before Indy took its first lead. Joey Slye pushed a 56-yard field goal through the ran for a 12-7 lead with 2:27 remaining in a wild opening period, and Wentz had a ball slip out of his hand near the goal line for a fumble that took at least three points off the scoreboard for the Colts.
With one minute remaining in the half, however, Wentz kept the ball on a run-pass option and scored from the 1-yard line to put Indianapolis ahead 13-12. The Colts never trailed again.
Taylor pushed the lead to 20-12 on a 5-yard touchdown run with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter. Then the Baltimore flashbacks began.
Indianapolis led that Monday night contest 22-3 with 3:06 left in the third quarter before Lamar Jackson and company staged an epic rally. When Garoppolo took the Niners 70 yards on just three plays and threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel to open the fourth quarter, it looked like history might be repeating.
But Leonard blitzed into the backfield on the ensuing 2-point conversion and emphatically swatted away a Garoppolo pass that would have tied the game. That was just the beginning of the Colts flipping the script in this prime time affair.
“I ain’t even gonna lie,” Leonard said. “When it came down to the fourth quarter and they scored in three plays, the first thing that went through my mind, I said, ‘Oh, hell, here we go again.’ You gotta think about that. But then we came up, we stepped up, got ’em stopped on a 2-point conversion and stopped them on the next two drives.
“So that was great, kind of coming into a hostile environment, game on the line, defense gets a stop. That’s definitely what we needed, especially after what we did on Monday night. We came down on Sunday night and finished the ballgame.”
Wentz – who finished a gutsy 17-of-26 for 150 yards and two touchdowns – appeared to give Indianapolis a critical third-down conversion with a 3-yard run to San Francisco’s 16-yard line on the ensuing drive, but right tackle Matt Pryor was called for holding. The Colts had to settle for a 42-yard field goal by Michael Badgley, and the lead was just 23-18 with 7:00 remaining.
That’s when Rhodes stepped up. The veteran cornerback left the field during pregame warmups with a calf injury and re-aggravated the ailment during the first half.
But he played through the pain and fought for a third-down interception at the Niners’ 43-yard line that set up the clinching touchdown.
“It didn’t look like he was gonna play,” Reich said. “I don’t know how he fought through it. He was limping around out there pretty bad, and I’m not even sure how he was playing. Then he comes up with the big interception at the end. So real credit to Xavier for his toughness and hanging in there in a big moment.”
After Pittman’s touchdown, San Francisco got two more drives. But safety Khari Willis ended the first one with an interception, and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner ended the game with a sack on the final snap.
It was an emotional ending for the All-Pro who spent his first four seasons in San Francisco before being traded to the Colts last year.
And it was the exclamation mark on a victory the Colts absolutely had to have with the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans (5-2) coming to Lucas Oil Stadium for a huge game on Halloween.
“This win means a lot,” Buckner said. “I know the guys didn’t want to talk about it a whole lot throughout the week. But we showed up. Guys had my back. Everybody showed up on prime time today, got this win. It was definitely personal for me. I wasn’t trying to get too high, too low throughout the week, but it meant a lot.”