Unsung heroes keeping Colts alive

PITTSBURGH -- Here's all you really need to know about the Indianapolis Colts' 24-20 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday:

• The Colts scored the winning touchdown on a 17-yard pass reception by a backup running back (Dominic Rhodes) who rejoined this team after being cut by Oakland this offseason.

• Both that score and another touchdown were set up by interceptions by two former reserve cornerbacks (Keiwan Ratliff and Tim Jennings) who had only recently found their way into the lineup.

• The Colts avoided a potential game-clinching touchdown when an undrafted rookie defensive tackle named Eric Foster stuffed Steelers running back Mewelde Moore on the Colts' 1-yard line.

The Colts need plenty of help these days and they're suddenly finding it in the unlikeliest of places. They came into Pittsburgh as clear underdogs, a team that had been haunted by injuries and inconsistency all season. They left Heinz Field with a more pronounced strut in their stride, a feeling that came from improving their record to 5-4 and earning their second straight victory. Now that the Colts have beaten New England and Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks, they're thinking that momentum is once again working in their favor.

But what made Sunday's win so impressive was the way those less-heralded Colts contributed to the victory. For years, this team has relied on the dominance of Pro Bowl-caliber players such as quarterback Peyton Manning, defensive end Dwight Freeney, strong safety Bob Sanders and wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. On Sunday, those players were thankful for the men who toil in their shadows.

"I talk to all our guys from day one about the importance of knowing they may be counted on to make plays for us," said Colts head coach Tony Dungy after the game. "It's not just about the stars. It's about everybody contributing, and that's what we got today."

Aside from a 65-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Wayne in the first quarter -- a freak play in which Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor bobbled a potential interception that landed in Wayne's hands -- there weren't many highlights from the Colts' stars. Instead, Ratliff was the man who made the critical play of the first half. With the Colts trailing 17-7 late in the second quarter, he picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returned it to the Steelers' 30-yard line with 1:30 left. Six plays later, Manning hit tight end Dallas Clark for a 2-yard touchdown that cut the Colts' deficit to three.

To understand how surprising it was for Ratliff to make that play, just consider that he was sitting on his couch in Cincinnati a little more than two weeks ago, watching football on Sundays as a man without a job. He has been released and re-signed by the Colts twice in the past six weeks, but all that instability hasn't diminished his spirits. When the Colts called again after both their starting cornerbacks (Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson) suffered injuries, Ratliff was ready to go. "It still feels like Christmas for me to be back out here playing," he said.

There's something to be said for a player who can stay that focused despite all the adversity around him. The same is true for Jennings, who committed four penalties in a loss to Green Bay on Oct. 19 but wound up making the biggest interception of the game. When he stepped in front of a Roethlisberger pass headed for Santonio Holmes late in the fourth quarter, he gave new life to a Colts offense that had been hoping for one final chance. A few minutes later, Rhodes wheeled out of the backfield and caught Manning's game-winning touchdown pass.

"[Steelers head coach Mike] Tomlin told us all week that they're a team that likes to score before the half and at the end of the game," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "That's what happened to us today."

What the Colts proved is that they still aren't in a position to be counted out. If anything, they're showing more about their resolve than they ever did when they were scoring at will and dominating teams with a swarming defense. These days they are winning the old-fashioned way -- by grinding out victories and waiting patiently for their chances. In fact, they've really had only one win this season that looked relatively easy, a 31-3 blowout of Baltimore in Week 6.

But Indianapolis is hardly complaining. There is an obvious self-awareness to the Colts this season, a feeling that they understand they aren't what they used to be and players such as Ratliff, Jennings, Rhodes and Foster must carry more of the load than they've ever been asked to. That's what it's going to take to keep Indianapolis in the playoff race as we move toward December. There's just too much parity in the AFC right now.

That's why the Colts know these wins are so important.

"We really are fighting and scratching and clawing for wins," Manning said. "We've been the underdogs for a while now and that's a different deal for us."

Added Freeney: "We're starting to get pointed in the right direction. It's tough to win in the NFL, but we're starting to put things together."

It's even harder to win when you don't have quality backups who can deliver in a pinch. As good as the elite players are in this league, there are simply going be some days when they don't have it. Sunday was a time when the Colts saw how easily things could go wrong in moments like that. And they also now realize how much depth they actually have, which is promising news going forward.

Following the game, Jennings really put this victory into perspective when asked about the contributions from the lesser-known players.

"This win shows that it's not about who's not playing," he said. "It's about who is out there playing."

Right now the Colts are asking a lot from people whose names you may not recognize. The beauty, however, is that they're producing the kinds of results that Indianapolis ultimately needs.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.