INDIANAPOLIS – Give the home fans Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium an assist on the biggest play of the game.
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was trying to run a post route late in the fourth quarter with time running out and his offense pinned deep in its own territory. As he had throughout the afternoon, Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris refused to allow Hilton to get over the top.
As he contemplated his next move, Hilton heard the crowd roar. He correctly guessed that meant quarterback Jacoby Brissett had escaped the pocket.
So Hilton headed back toward the football and caught a 35-yard pass that jump-started the game-winning drive.
Moments later, Adam Vinatieri sent a 51-yard field goal through the uprights with 22 seconds remaining, and the Colts (5-2) escaped with a 15-13 victory.
“It was a perfect throw, man, on the money,” Hilton said. “[Brissett’s] one of those guys you always got to stay alive for. He can get out of the pocket and make those type of plays.”
The throw was only half the equation.
The play started with Broncos linebacker Von Miller crashing off the edge and pressuring Brissett near the end zone. Somehow, the quarterback escaped his grasp and squirted into the open field.
While still on the run, Brissett threw a strike to Hilton, who got both feet inbounds at his own 46-yard line for a 35-yard gain that gave a mostly moribund offense life.
“There’s maybe a couple quarterbacks in the league that can make that play, but we’ve got one of them,” Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. “That’s two-fold. It’s get away from Von Miller in the end zone, and then the throw. The throw is stinkin’ impressive. On the run to the right, getting it that far down the field, inbounds to T.Y., huge play by Jacoby.”
Perhaps it’s fitting on a day that saw 20 flags thrown for a combined 191 yards, a penalty also heavily factored into the game-winning march.
Two snaps after Brissett’s great escape, he found running back Nyheim Hines in the flat for a 5-yard gain that would have brought up a crucial third down just inside Denver territory with 1:35 to play.
But, as Hines fought for extra yards while going out of bounds, Broncos linebacker Alexander Johnson was called for a horse-collar tackle that moved the ball into field-goal range.
Reich dialed up an aggressive play on first down from the 34-yard line, with Brissett rolling to his right and looking for a big gain. But Denver (2-6) anticipated the move and had the pass well covered.
Brissett wound up taking a 1-yard sack, and the Colts ran the ball twice up the middle to set up Vinatieri’s game-winner.
“I thought we could sneak one in there and get some big yards on it,” Reich said. “Once we didn’t get that, I wasn’t going to take a chance on a sack or a holding penalty that would put us out of field goal range. So just run it twice and let Adam win the game.”
On paper, it was a risky call.
Vinatieri was good on a 55-yarder just before halftime and a 45-yarder midway through the third quarter. But he also missed a 45-yard field goal on the opening drive and an extra point that would have tied the game with 2:26 left in the third period.
But Reich never hesitated to send his kicker out there, and Vinatieri delivered.
“Obviously, it’s always nicer if it’s a little closer one way or another,” Vinatieri said. “But we hit those in practice all the time, too. As long as you go out there and hit a clean ball and do everything right, distance isn’t really that big of an issue.”
The kick salvaged a day that saw a lot of ugly play from the home team.
Denver led 6-0 after a pair of short field goals by Brandon McManus in the first half, and the Broncos took what felt like a commanding 13-3 lead with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter.
That series was capped by a 4-yard touchdown run by Royce Freeman with 11:38 remaining in the period. It also represented the final points for the visitors.
“We’re growing,” linebacker Anthony Walker said of the Indianapolis defense. “We’re learning more about each other, getting closer as a unit. Each year is different. You kind of come in, and you’re like, ‘Man, these guys should be rolling from last year.’ But everything changes in a year.
“It’s not completely the same guys. You can say it’s the same system, but you never can say from one year, it’s gonna just carry over to the next year. We had to learn again, and we had to start from zero again and build that foundation over. And I think it’s still getting built. We’re still learning, [and] we’re still growing.”
Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco finished 20-of-32 for 174 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions, and Denver’s run game added 113 yards on 28 carries.
But the most successful strategy for the Broncos was picking on rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. In coverage against wide receiver Courtland Sutton – who had three catches for 72 yards – Ya-Sin drew five flags, including a pass interference penalty that set up Freeman’s touchdown run.
Indianapolis’ comeback began with Vinatieri’s 45-yard field goal with 6:05 left in the third quarter and appeared to be complete when Marlon Mack – who had 76 tough yards on 19 attempts -- scored on a gorgeous 10-yard run with 2:26 remaining in the period.
But Vinatieri missed the extra point, and the Colts trailed 13-12.
It stayed that way until Indianapolis took over at its own 11-yard line with 1:48 to play. Then Brissett – who finished 15-of-25 for 202 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions – played the hero.
“Miller probably makes that play nine times out of 10,” Walker said, “and that one out of 10 just happens to be Jacoby Brissett.”