Colts live up to early promises with early win
The Indianapolis Colts are already off to a new start.
After stumbling out of the gate last season with 13 consecutive losses and dealing with the interminable questions about going winless, new coach Chuck Pagano and new quarterback Andrew Luck have already made sure that won't happen again.
They're beginning to re-establish home-field advantage with three straight wins at Lucas Oil Stadium, though two of those in the preseason.
They've held two of the league's top running backs - Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte - to less than 100 yards rushing.
And the new quarterback has already proven he can win in the NFL.
It's a promising start for a team that is back at .500 for the first time since the end of the 2010 season.
''I think the biggest difference now is that guys are more excited to come to work,'' said veteran defensive tackle Fili Moala, one of those who survived last year's fallout. ''It wasn't as if anyone turned on each other. Players, as a whole, had each other's backs. But this year, even though we haven't really done anything yet, it's a relief to get a win under our belt.''
Nobody was happier Monday than Luck, the one big prize Indy (1-1) reaped from its horrendous 2011 season.
For two years, draft analysts called Luck the most NFL-ready quarterback since Peyton Manning, and the best quarterback to come out of Stanford since John Elway.
So when Indy released Manning in March to make room for Luck, the comparisons were inevitable.
After throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble in a 41-21 season-opening loss at Chicago, Luck's numbers were virtually identical to his predecessor's NFL debut in 1998. And after seeing a seemingly healthy Manning led the Broncos to a Week 1 victory, some fans started questioning whether the Colts made the right decision by starting over in 2012.
The No. 1 draft pick delivered his counter argument Sunday.
Luck went 20 of 31 for 224 yards with two touchdowns, no turnovers and led the Colts on a masterful 45-yard game-winning drive in the final 31 seconds of his first NFL home game. Manning was 21 of 33 for 188 yards with one TD and three interceptions in his second start, at New England, as he opened the 1998 season 0-4.
''I think there is a sense of relief about when's it (the first win) going to come, when's it going to come?'' said Luck, who needed three fewer games than Manning to collect his first NFL win.
Neither Luck nor defensive end Cory Redding were around to see last year's carnage.
But Redding, who reached the playoffs each of the past two years in Baltimore, knows what losing early can do to a team. In 2009, he played with the 5-11 Seahawks and in 2008, he played on the only 0-16 team in league history - the Detroit Lions.
''It's a huge factor,'' Redding said when asked about the impact of waiting anxiously to get a first win. ''Guys aren't playing within the scheme of the team concepts because they're doing what they can to make a play. I've been part of that, and the guys start to say `Forget this.'''
Winning early, on the other hand, has put Indy's players at ease.
The veterans who endured last season's debacle acknowledged Monday that they're glad 2012 won't be like 2011, regardless of how many games they win, and the newcomers are just happy that they've already answered one big question.
''Now it won't be looming over us, so we're very happy about that,'' Luck said.
It wasn't just the win that has given the Colts confidence, it's the way Indy won.
The defense held fast for the first 54 minutes, yielding only two field goals, despite playing without Dwight Freeney.
Luck, who played the entire second half without three starters on the offensive line, continually escaped trouble and made big plays when he had to. He found a wide open Reggie Wayne behind zone coverage for a 30-yard TD pass with 7 seconds left the first half took, took advantage of Minnesota's mistakes early in the second half and finally moved the Colts into field goal range at the end of the game.
It's still unclear whether the Colts' injury situation will be any better next week.
Freeney (sprained left ankle), receiver Austin Collie (concussion) and right tackle Winston Justice (concussion) are all listed as day to day. Center Samson Satele, who left in the first half with an undisclosed knee injury and did not return, was waiting to hear back from doctors about MRI result. Pagano hasn't said yet whether left guard Joe Reitz (knee) will play this weekend against Jacksonville, either.
But Sunday's victory has the Colts' thinking big.
''It's huge for the locker room, huge for morale, huge for everything moving forward,'' Pagano said.