How Colts' smart challenge changed a game

Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky

INDIANAPOLIS -- The timing was exquisite. The execution flawless. The thinking airtight.

Yet another Peyton Manning pass play? Nope. Jim Caldwell’s toss of his red challenge flag late in the first half.

Waiting until just before the first play after the two-minute warning to challenge, Caldwell understood the beneficial timing and outfoxed his Houston counterparts with a slow play.

His challenge and referee Jeff Triplette’s determination that Ryan Moats fumbled out of the end zone from the Indianapolis 1-yard line resulted in a touchback. They were pivotal moments in the Colts’ 20-17 win that kept their record spotless and kept Houston (5-4) from doing any dreaming about a scenario where it can challenge for the division title.

“That play turned out to be a perfect play for those guys, not so good for us,” said downtrodden cornerback Dunta Robinson, whose team is now 0-8 in Indy. “A lot of guys on the sideline were saying, ‘Run another play, run another play.’ Obviously our staff didn’t think it was a fumble. Those are things you’re not too sure about. I think it could have gone either way. We’re at their house, and that play went their way.”

For so much of the Manning and Bill Polian era, things have gone the Colts’ way. Good teams make their own good fortune, we hear time and time again on NFL Sundays. And here was a prime example that actually had nothing to do with the team’s stud quarterback or supremely gifted architect.

The Texans turned to Moats to minimize Steve Slaton’s opportunities to fumble and got the same result at a crucial moment.

Colts assistant offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars got a close look at the play which commenced with 2:30 on the clock and believed it could be judged differently upon review. Caldwell casually chatted with officials but ultimately waited until the two-minute break was over and the Texans were starting to line up for second-and-goal at the 1 before dropping the flag and officially getting the crew’s attention.

The Colts' coach didn’t get it all right. He thought Jerraud Powers had re-established himself in bounds and recovered the ball. But the piece of his interpretation that was wrong didn’t hurt him, while it was a different story on the other sideline.

Gary Kubiak and his people saw no cause for alarm. They could have called for Matt Schaub to run another play before the warning, either washing away the Colts’ chance to challenge or forcing Caldwell into a quicker decision than he would have liked, when he might have hesitated risking a timeout.

“We didn’t even know until the play had been stopped and it got to the two-minute warning that there was even an issue,” Kubiak said. “Then somebody in the press box said, ‘I think they’re looking at the ball right here.' We thought that Ryan was out of bounds. But the way it was explained to me was that the ball did come out, nobody argued that.

“We felt that players were out of bounds that were touching the ball. And what they said was that Ryan was on top of whoever that player was, so technically he’s not out of bounds, he’s still in the field of play.”

Now as we consider how the challenge unfolded we should note Caldwell and his staff had the luxury of time; Kubiak and his assistants did not.

After the play was over, there might have been 10 seconds until the tw0-minute warning stopped the clock. Is it reasonable to expect communication and decisiveness on such a hard-to-read situation in those 10 seconds, to expect Kubiak to know that the urgings of Robinson and others were not typical player hopefulness but an accurate read and to tell Schaub to run a play? Probably not.

But against the Colts, oftentimes things pan out that way: you get 10 seconds when they get 155. And if you don’t have the insight to make the quick interpretation in a less-than-advantageous situation, well tough luck, it all sorts out the way it so often does: in Indianapolis’ favor.

Antoine Bethea, the safety who jarred the ball free, said he knew it was a fumble and told the officials, but not Caldwell.

Players are always going to think things in a debatable situation went their way. But Bethea had a much clearer read on the situation than did Moats, and that ability to understand what did happen and what didn’t in the flash of an NFL-speed play is the sort of thing that helps make the Colts consistently good and leaves others striving to match them.

"I didn’t know it was an issue,” Moats said. “I thought I was out of bounds."

Not exactly Bill Bradley’s famous “A Sense of Where You Are.”

And developments that may well have changed the outcome of the game.

“Momentum was going their way, they were moving the ball on us and we had kind of stuttered a little bit on offense,” Indianapolis guard Ryan Lilja said. “Our defense got some big turnovers, that one included. I don’t know if that was the defining moment of the game, but that was huge. That’s seven points for them. That makes it a whole different ball game. We lucked out on that one. That’s the bottom line, we lucked out.”

Nice of him to say. But it was a whole lot more than that.