An Indianapolis Colts season that had already given us the Matt Gay game and the Kenny Moore game just gave us another to tell the grandchildren someday. Only question is, what should we call this 31-28 overtime victory against the Tennessee Titans?
The blocked punt game?
The Alec Pierce game?
How about this: The most mind-blowing game of a most mind-blowing season.
To say this game had “everything” wouldn’t do justice to the word, because this game had more than everything. Seriously, it had things that just don’t happen, like a kicker who becomes a punter and a quarterback who becomes a holder and a season-long goat who becomes a Sunday hero. It had an interception that technically wasn’t, and a blocked punt that technically wasn’t.
It even had a Mr. Irrelevant who absolutely wasn’t.
What it had, this Colts game Sunday in Nashville, is something we’re getting used to around here: The final score showing the Colts with more points than the other team, their fourth victory in a row, all without franchise quarterback Anthony Richardson and this one without franchise running back Jonathan Taylor. This game did have franchise coach Shane Steichen, a first-year wonder who might just sweep all three of the NFL’s biggest awards:
Rookie of the Year.
Most Valuable Player.
Coach of the Year.
Don’t tell me the Colts’ coach can’t win ROY or MVP. After watching what happened Sunday in Nashville, I’m telling you: Anything’s possible.
Mr. Irrelevant goes to block a punt
Let’s start this story – yes, we can start it for a second time; anything’s possible, remember? – by introducing you to Brian Mason. Who’s he? Well he’s from Zionsville, which is nice. He coached at Notre Dame, which is kind of cool. But now he’s the guy in charge of the Colts’ special teams, the guy who did the damndest thing you’ll ever see from a special teams coach after one of his units blocked a punt by Tennessee’s Ryan Stonehouse.
Brian Mason, that greedy so-and-so, wanted another one!
So here’s the situation: The Colts are leading 22-19 after a blocked punt by second-year safety Nick Cross, who burst through the line in the usual way – foreshadowing, you might call that – and got to Stonehouse so early that he almost hit the guy before blocking the punt. But he did block it, and Grant Stuard did scoop it up at the 18, and Stuard did carry the football and his glorious head of hair into the end zone for a 22-17 lead.
Stuard is more than the Colts’ mane man, though. He’s also the guy chosen with the last pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, an honor that earned him the nickname “Mr. Irrelevant,” as it did for 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, the last pick in 2022.
That draft pick really needs a new nickname.
After the Stuard touchdown, the Colts eschewed the usual PAT attempt to go for two points, because that’s what the laminated card says you do when you’re leading by five points in the third quarter. But quarterback Gardner Minshew’s pass was tipped to Titans safety Amani Hooker, who went 100 yards the other way for two points for the wrong team, meaning the Colts’ lead was whittled to 22-19.
Weird, right? So the Colts are kicking off, even though Tennessee had just scored, and the Colts are forcing a three-and-out thanks to its rejuvenated pass rush forcing two sacks on three plays. Not sure what the laminated card says to do now, but here’s what Brian Mason did:
He called for a punt block.
No, really, this was a planned block. Cross’ block earlier? That was the result of good practice habits and a great break from the line of scrimmage. It happened, because it happened.
What happened next? That happened because Brian Mason wanted it to happen.
On the Titans’ next punt, embattled Colts CB Tony Brown Jr. is assigned to one of the Titans’ gunners, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine – remember him from IU? – whose job is to get down the field in 4.5 seconds and tackle the punt returner. Lined up opposite the gunner, it’s Brown’s job to block Westbrook-Ikhine so he can’t get down the field in 4.5 seconds.
ONLY, WHAT IS TONY BROWN JR. DOING?
Tony Brown Jr.'s (not) blocked punt
He’s leaving Westbrook-Ikhine, running parallel to the line of scrimmage, staying onsides but hoping the ball is snapped soon because he has somewhere to be. Westbrook-Ikhine knows what’s coming, but he’s helpless to stop it. He’s just pointing at Brown, hoping the Titans don’t snap the ball right now.
The Titans snap the ball right now.
Brown’s heading for the punter, and he’s heading there at full speed. Remember earlier, when I said Nick Cross “got to Stonehouse so early that he almost hit the guy before blocking the punt”? Brown did get to Stonehouse that early. Technically what happened next wasn’t a blocked punt, because apparently the punter’s leg has to hit the ball for the block to be a block. Brown was there so early, he crashed into Stonehouse before he could even kick the ball. The Colts recovered at the 7, and three plays later kicked a field goal for a 25-19 lead.
That blocked punt, or whatever we’re calling it, was the gift that kept on giving for the Colts, and I say that with all due respect to Stonehouse, because he suffered a devastating leg injury on the play. Stonehouse also is the Titans’ holder, so with him out of the game backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill had to serve as the emergency holder.
And when Tennessee scored a touchdown with 5:26 left to tie it at 25, all Tennessee needed to win in regulation was Nick Folk’s PAT. Now holding for the first time in years, Tannehill catches the snap just fine and puts the ball down just fine, but the laces are facing him. And anyone who knows anything about kicking – or, like me, watched the 1994 Jim Carrey movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – knows these two words:
Tannehill left the laces in, and Folk pulled the kick left. Afterward Tannehill was pointing to his chest, saying the miss was his fault. Seems reasonable. This is Folk’s 16th year in the NFL, and after a 19-for-19 start he was on pace for his 11th season without a missed PAT. Pressed into emergency punter action because of Stonehouse’s injury, Folk did manage two kicks for 40.5-yard average. But he missed that PAT.
So we’re going to overtime.
Shane Steichen, Alec Pierce, Michael Pittman Jr.
Up to a point, every NFL contest is a game of attrition. It’s a violent sport, people get hurt, I don’t need to tell you that in Indianapolis. But the attrition in this game was something to behold, most of it on the Titans' side. True, the Colts played most of the game without right tackle Braden Smith, which contributed to the Colts’ lowly 53 rushing yards on 23 attempts (2.4 yards per carry), three sacks and seven QB hits allowed.
But the Titans finished the game without their punter (Stonehouse) and holder (ibid), and without future Hall of Fame running back Derrick Henry, who was doing his usual number on the Colts – 21 carries, 102 yards, two touchdowns – when he banged his head on the turf at the end of a 9-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin, one of the NFL’s leading tacklers and gentlemen, looked into Henry’s eyes and didn’t like what he was seeing and called for help from the Tennessee sideline.
Henry left with a possible concussion and didn’t return, though the Colts couldn’t stop his backup, either. Tyjae Spears ran for 75 yards on 16 carries for a Tennessee team that was trying not to let rookie quarterback Will Levis (16-for-33, 224 yards) throw them out of it.
The Colts defense, which has won a handful of games – Kenny Moore’s double pick-6 game in Carolina comes to mind – needed help this time. In Baltimore the help came from kicker Matt Gay, who set an NFL record with four field goals of 50 yards or more, including the winner in overtime.
This time the help came from Minshew (26-for-42, 312 yards, two TD’s, no INT’s) and wideouts Michael Pittman Jr. (11 catches, 105 yards, one TD) and Pierce (three catches, 100 yards, one TD).
The Alec Pierce game, remember? The speedy receiver caught a 36-yard TD on the Colts’ first drive, his first touchdown in 364 days; he’d last scored in the Colts’ disgusting 54-19 loss at Dallas on Dec. 4, 2022, a game I hope you’ve forgotten. And then he pulled in a 55-yard catch in overtime, after the Titans had kicked a field goal for a 28-25 lead.
A field goal for the Titans, not a touchdown, meant the Colts got one possession. And with Steichen calling his usual array of weird plays – there was a flea flicker earlier for a 46-yard completion to Kylen Granson and a jet sweep by a tight end (!!) on fourth-and-2 that extended a scoring drive, plus perfect clock management before halftime to get a field goal – the Colts moved quickly into scoring range thanks to that 55-yard pass to Pierce.
From there Steichen went with his old standby, Pittman, who isn’t terribly quick or fast but is somehow always open. Minshew found him for a 4-yard TD, and the game was over.
The winning streak continues, as does the Colts’ march toward the 2023 NFL playoffs, which doesn’t feel weird to write anymore. As I said, anything’s possible.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts defeat Titans in OT in 'Alec Pierce game' or 'blocked punt game'