ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The temptation, among observers and players themselves, is to say that the Indianapolis Colts made a statement in their 41-15 thrashing of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Their season ended in the playoffs here last year in particularly brutal fashion -- the Colts lost an early lead -- sending Philip Rivers into his retirement. Head coach Frank Reich, who famously played for the Bills, had been emotional during preparations this week, finally admitting after the game that this game meant a little more for him. Maybe, when we look back on this weekend, it was the rare statement that will stick.
"Hopefully we sent a message to the league," said running back Nyheim Hines. "It's a respect thing. We all feel like nobody respects us. We all have that underdog mentality. We were in that room last year. It was personal today."
It is hard to discount the impact, on the Colts and on the league's consciousness, of Jonathan Taylor's stunning five-touchdown game. Or to undersell Reich's choked-up invocation of his own message about climbing Mount Everest as he sought to send a message of encouragement to those who are struggling. This victory meant plenty to the Colts, who started the season 0-3 and then fell to 1-4. Getting above .500 for the first time this season, on the road, against a top team -- finally breaking an eight-game losing streak against playoff teams from the previous season -- was an important benchmark for them.
But the Colts, like the Bills, toil in the AFC, where previous statements have been made in recent weeks by the Chargers, Ravens, Raiders, Bengals and -- yes -- the Bills themselves. The statements faded to whispers soon after and each of those teams are now scrambling to recover. In the AFC this season, statements are empty. Surviving says much more.
That is what the Colts have done, more than anything, this season. They have won three in a row and are now solidly in the playoff mix, a testament to their resilience and climbing the eternal football Everest, certainly, but also to finding their identity, a Jonathan Taylor run-heavy attack that overwhelmed a Bills defense that entered the game ranked first in the league and third against the run.
Like so much about what we think we know this season, the Bills' statistical dominance may have been a bit of a mirage. Their only win against a team that currently has a winning record was against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5, when the Chiefs were struggling. The Bills had an oddly difficult first half against the Miami Dolphins two weeks later. Their offense entirely disappeared in a loss to the Jaguars. And, incredibly, none of that is fatal in the AFC this season. It might not even be fatal for the Bills in the AFC East, although they now trail the New England Patriots, who are simply the hottest team in the league with five straight victories.
The Colts, though, took their turn this week reordering our expectations. Taylor rushed for 185 yards, added another 19 receiving and positioned himself as the NFL's best back with Derrick Henry sidelined. Taylor had 32 rushes one week after having 21, and the whooping coming from the Colts' locker room -- "One! Two! Three! Four! Five!" -- was a giddy reflection of how delighted, and maybe even a little surprised, the Colts were by their own output. It sent Bills fans, among the league's most devoted, trudging out of the stadium midway through the third quarter.
The Colts had squandered leads before -- their overtime loss earlier this season to the Ravens after holding a 22-3 advantage still haunts members of the franchise -- and as important as the victory was, it was the manner in which it was achieved. The Colts jumped out to a lead with a bludgeoning 11-play opening drive and did not surrender it. Their defense disguised their coverage to confuse Josh Allen into two interceptions, they owned the line of scrimmage so Taylor could run -- Mo Alie-Cox said Taylor looked like a superhero going into the end zone -- and they took the air out of the game by holding the ball for nearly 38 minutes.
"That's something we're going to have to do -- we have to be able to put games away, put points up and play great defense," Taylor said.
Taylor is quiet and even after his historic performance, his tone did not change. Cox said on the sideline teammates were trying to hype Taylor up. Taylor's reaction? Cox imitated him, staring into a camera utterly expressionless.
Taylor does not get too high or too low and that is the persona the Colts have taken on, too. Reich and the players talk a lot about going "1-0 this week," which causes a lot of eye rolls among reporters in press conferences. It seems to have worked for the Colts, though, who have finally added their voices to the chorus of statements this season.
The AFC is a quagmire this year, allowing teams to surface for only so long before they get sucked back down to the level of the group. Last week, Chiefs coach Andy Reid marveled at the league's "ridiculous" parity, and it is ridiculous to think that anything has been sorted out yet. The Colts seem to know that as well as anyone. They were counted out early and now must avoid the trap that has caught nearly every other team that briefly breathed the air at the top.
That is the battle cry of the AFC this season. The real statement from Sunday is that no matter the score, there isn't much separating the Colts and the Bills, or the rest of their competition, in a season when dominance is banned and the biggest wish is for consistency.