The Indianapolis Colts newcomers may have just made Chuck Pagano's next task that much harder.
With cut-down day looming, rookie quarterback Chandler Harnish, Mr. Irrelevant, led the Colts on three touchdown drives and threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Dominique Jones with 6:54 left in the game to give Indy a 20-16 victory over Cincinnati.
Now the Colts coach must decide who stays, who goes and who might return on the practice squad.
"It's extremely tough because these guys have worked their whole lives, dreamed of something their whole lives since Pop Warner really, and we have 22 bags to pack tomorrow at some point," Pagano said. "It's extremely tough."
Harnish made his case during his most extensive — and impressive — action of the preseason.
On a night that Andrew Luck followed the script and left after one series, and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton improvised and departed after six plays after bruising his throwing arm, it was the backups who shined.
Deji Karim and Darren Evans each rushed for touchdowns for Indy (2-2).
Jones, another rookie, made a nifty catch on Harnish's final pass, eluded one tackle and broke another as he ran down the right side of the field and overpowered his way into the end zone.
Linebacker Moise Fokou, whom Indy acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, had 13 tackles, broke up two passes and forced a fumble, and Harnish, dubbed Mr. Irrelevant as the last pick in the draft, wound up 9 of 16 for 162 yards with one TD pass — the winning score.
"I don't know if satisfied is the word I'd use," Harnish said. "I'd say confident. We do feel pretty pumped up about what we did (winning). You can only do so much. I think there's been a lot of good things for myself and the unit."
The biggest scare for Cincinnati came on its sixth offensive play when an offensive line already playing without starting center Kyle Cook broke down. Robert Mathis honed in on Dalton, hitting him on his throwing arm. Dalton stayed down briefly, then got up, walked toward the sideline and dropped to the ground again where trainers appeared to look at his right elbow.
Fortunately for the Bengals (2-2), the injury wasn't as bad as it looked.
"It was a stupid thing where my hand went a little numb, kind of like getting hit in the funny bone," Dalton explained. "I wish it didn't happen, but it did. I'll be ready to go (for the season opener)."
Injuries and decisions kept the backups in the spotlight all night.
At times, Harnish dazzled his home-state fans with strong throws and quick strikes. The three TD drives consumed a total of 5 minutes, 58 seconds.
But between the scores, it was a long, ugly game for the I-74 rivals that traditionally close out the preseason.
Indy managed only one first down in the first 26 minutes and drew five of its 10 penalties in the first 20 minutes.
Cincinnati (2-2) struggled, too, committing 14 penalties and giving the Colts too many extra opportunities.
Seven-year NFL veteran Bruce Gradkowski replaced Dalton and led the Bengals to three first-half scoring drives. He finished 12 of 19 for 95 yards with one TD. Zac Robinson played the entire second half for the Bengals and wound up 16 of 22 for 140 yards.
Cincinnati took an early 10-0 lead, trailed 14-13 at halftime and then regained the lead when Mike Nugent's 22-yard field goal midway through the third quarter made it 16-14.
The Bengals couldn't hold either one.
"I thought the ability of the first group to go out there and play with a great tempo early in the football game, they came out and got off to a good start, and that's what we were looking for," coach Marvin Lewis said. "It was a battle with the rest of the guys, the rest of the way down. We were short on numbers."
Harnish took advantage of those problems.
He got the Colts into the end zone twice in the final 2:28 of the first half. Deji Karim ran 7 yards for Indy's first score and Darren Evans scored on a 1-yard run after the Bengals were called for pass interference in the end zone.
Suddenly, Indy led 14-10.
And when the Colts needed another big play, Harnish hooked up with Jones, who made a nifty catch on the move, eluded one tackle and broke another as he headed toward the end zone for the win.
"I think a lot of kudos to Chandler, coming in with the other guys and putting points on the board and finishing it out," Luck said.
NOTES: Both teams benched five starters Thursday. Indy played without receiver Austin Collie, cornerback Jerraud Powers, defensive end Cory Redding and left guard Joe Reitz and rush linebacker Dwight Freeney. The Bengals kept center Kyle Cook, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, tight end Jermaine Gresham and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga on the sideline. ... The New Castle, Ind., team that went to the Little League World Series was recognized on the field before the game. ... Former Ohio State running back Daniel Herron led the Bengals in rushing with 15 carries for 29 yards. ... Karim led the Colts with 12 carries for 36 yards.
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