The banged-up Indianapolis Colts (5-6) put up a surprisingly formidable performance, but still fell to the AFC North’s sleeping giant, the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28-7 in the Thanksgiving finale Thursday.
Here’s what we learned…
1. Say what you will about Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck backup Scott Tolzien, but the pair coached and played a hell of a game Thursday given the circumstances. Within a few minutes Thursday, the Colts also lost center Ryan Kelly, guard Denzelle Good, top corner Vontae Davis and top receiver T.Y. Hilton, who dropped a perfectly thrown bomb from Tolzien a few minutes before sustaining a back injury. Pagano went for it on fourth down, he called a fake punt and rotated Frank Gore in as a wildcat back. No one can accuse him of taking a hard pass on this week.
2. As for Tolzien, he played well enough to keep the Colts in this game even if the final stat line — 22-of-36, 205 yards, one touchdown and two picks — didn’t show it. It felt like Pittsburgh was rushing at least five on every play, and well into the fourth quarter when Ross Cockrell nearly split him in half after a free run on a secondary blitz.
3. How ridiculous are Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger? Brown, who now leads all receivers with 10 touchdowns on the season, benefited from an ailing Vontae Davis, who was simply punished on two of the receiver’s three touchdowns on Thursday. There was nearly a fourth when Brown snapped off a double move that forced Davis to fall into the turf. Matchup conditions aside, this is simply a great receiver-quarterback tandem. Their unconscious feel for one another on a back shoulder fade is nearly impossible to stop, and rivals the beauty of Peyton Manning-Marvin Harrison/Tom Brady-Wes Welker/Eli Manning-Plaxico Burress in their primes.
4. The Steelers (6-5) don’t have a cakewalk over the next few weeks — Giants, at Bills, at Bengals, vs. Ravens — but next week’s game against a surging Eli Manning and Odell Beckham should give us a sense of where Pittsburgh is at post-Roethlisberger injury. Do they have the individual talent on defense to keep themselves in a big game like they did against Dallas back on Nov. 13? Can they torch a Giants secondary that has been playing as well as any unit in football?
5. Perhaps the only silver lining of the Cam Heyward injury in Pittsburgh was the forced maturity of rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave. The Steelers are depending on three rookies — Hargrave, Sean Davis and Artie Burns — heavily on defense and Thursday’s game was a nice preview of what we can expect down the road. The 300-pound Hargrave showed some nice inside rush moves in an adjusted role against a banged-up Colts interior. If he can be this disruptive next week, Pittsburgh’s best remaining rusher — James Harrison — could open up a sizable sack lead over the rest of his defensive teammates.