Colts keep finding ways to win without regulars
Two weeks ago, Aaron Francisco was just hoping to land another NFL job.
A few days later, he was a starting safety for the defending AFC champs. Now, he's a household name in Indianapolis after making the catch of his six-year career - a one-handed interception to preserve the Colts' 27-24 victory at Washington.
Welcome back to the NFL.
''It's really sweet,'' Francisco said as he recounted a play that will likely go on the Colts' season highlight film. ''I just stopped it with one hand and came down with it with two.''
Things like this are not supposed to happen in a star-studded league.
But Francisco has learned Indianapolis (4-2) is no typical NFL team.
Here, 12-win seasons, division titles and playoff appearances are expected. Anything less than a Super Bowl trip is considered failure. Undrafted free agents get as much of an opportunity to make the team as draft picks, and every player who makes the roster is expected to contribute in some way.
Most times, they do, and on Sunday, it was Francisco and rookie linebacker Pat Angerer who made the big plays.
On third-and-10 late in the game, Angerer made a perfect play to break up Donovan McNabb's short pass to running back Keiland Williams. Angerer finished with 11 tackles and one sack in his first career start, replacing injured defensive captain Gary Brackett.
''I think he played hard and he was very active,'' Brackett said in his critique. ''I tried to keep him calm (on the sideline) because it can be a little overwhelming out there and I told him not to second-guess himself. Once you make a check, live with it.''
Angerer did make some mistakes, though coach Jim Caldwell gave him good overall marks.
The unheralded Francisco came up big in the closing minutes, too.
He and Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea converged on speedy receiver Anthony Armstrong when McNabb overthrew him on fourth-and-10 on the Redskins' next-to-last possession and when McNabb tried to make the big play down the sideline in the closing minute, Francisco undercut the receiver, tipped the ball to himself and picked it off.
Just like they teach it.
''He judged it properly, made a great leap and brought it in,'' coach Jim Caldwell said.
The fact that Francisco was anywhere near the ball Sunday night was a surprise, too.
He left the Colts as a free agent during the offseason and signed with Carolina. After being bothered in training camp with a torn hamstring, Carolina released him with an injury settlement in early September.
Francisco spent the next several weeks working out at home, waiting for another team to sign him.
''I've never been somewhere where you've had three practices and you're starting,'' he said. ''It was kind of tough the first day, but as the days went by, things kind of came back to me.''
To those who have watched the Colts over the past decade, the contributions should not be a surprise.
Whether it was Mike Hart scoring the game's only touchdown to beat Kansas City 19-9 the previous week or Blair White catching a crucial touchdown to help the Colts pull away for a 27-13 victory at Denver last month, everybody seems to have a moment.
Even Francisco, who played on the 2008 NFC champion Arizona Cardinals.
''I think the attitude is just a lot more prevalent here than anywhere else,'' he said. ''It's been that way since I got here and that was one of the first things they told me when I got here last year.''
It's not likely to be the last time the Colts need some reinforcements this season.
Running back Joseph Addai left late in Sunday's game with a left shoulder injury and was walking around with a sling on Monday. Team president Bill Polian said on his weekly radio show that it does not appear to be a separation.
''They're doing more tests and we'll know more later in the week,'' Polian told listeners. ''But it doesn't appear to be a separated shoulder, so that's the good news.''
With Sanders expected to be out until at least December, Francisco remains the starter.
And the Colts hope he, and everyone else, keeps making plays when they get their chance.
''You see week in and week out, we have guys that step in and play,'' Caldwell said. ''We do not cry 'Woe is me.' Our job is to win, plain and simple.''