Every week the Indianapolis Colts are finding a new way to win. Last Sunday, they finished off a quality opponent with a picture-perfect field goal drive in the final 30 seconds. Today against the New England Patriots, they learned how to survive against a desperate foe.
A week earlier in Miami, the Colts won on a final-gun field goal for a two-game lead in the AFC East. This afternoon, their underrated defense bailed them out in the final minute as the Patriots were in perfect position to pull off a major upset and stay in the wild-card playoff hunt.
Instead, the Colts prevailed, 20-15, and clinched a playoff berth, a grand turnaround from their 3-13 nightmare a year ago. The game was saved by a magnificent defensive stand at the Indianapolis 27 with 88 seconds left and the ball in the hands of New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe, one of the game's most dangerous passers.
Four plays later, Bledsoe's pass intended for wide receiver Shawn Jefferson fell incomplete with two Colts defenders preventing the ball from hitting its intended target. As a result, the Colts maintained their three-game divisional lead over the Dolphins, won their 11th game in 13 starts and looked once again like a force to be reckoned with in the postseason with their ninth straight triumph.
"That might have been the best one all year," said Colts Coach Jim Mora, whose team ended a seven-game losing streak against the Patriots dating from December 1995. "We're playing a team in a must-win situation, a good, talented team that was ready to play. We knew it was going to be a real toughie, but we pulled it out."
The Patriots (7-6) will need help from a variety of sources to make the playoffs.
"There is a sick feeling in this locker room," Coach Pete Carroll said. "We knew how important this game was and how much we could gain by it. We had our shots in the red zone and came out with field goals. We couldn't find our way into the end zone."
The Colts fared far better. They did it with their cast of gifted offensive performers. Quarterback Peyton Manning threw for two touchdowns with no interceptions, although his fumble when guard Waverly Jackson's hand knocked the ball out of his grasp gave the Patriots one last chance in the final minutes. New England linebacker Lawyer Milloy recovered with 2 minutes 11 seconds remaining at the Patriots 33 to set up New England's last unsuccessful drive.
Receiver Marvin Harrison had a 52-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage to set up the Colts' first touchdown and caught a total of six passes for 118 yards, breaking team single-season records for catches (88) and yards (1,257). Rookie running back Edgerrin James, held to nine yards on six first-half carries, gained 92 in the second half for 101 yards on 20 carries, tying an NFL rookie record with nine 100-yard games for the season. He also scored on a two-yard shovel pass from Manning.
But mostly, the Colts prevailed because of a defense that sacked Bledsoe five times, intercepted him once and allowed the Patriots to convert 3 of 13 third-down attempts.
One sack came on third and five at the Colts 22 with 1:17 remaining. Linebacker Mike Peterson blitzed and came in untouched to throw Bledsoe for an eight-yard loss, setting up the quarterback's final incomplete pass on fourth down.
Most of the Colts were pointing to linebacker Cornelius Bennett as the source of their inspiration. The 13-year veteran has been in five Super Bowls, all on losing Buffalo or Atlanta teams, and he delivered a spirited speech to his teammates Saturday night about the importance of finishing off opponents.
Bennett also led by example today, with a game-high 15 tackles, including one that forced a fumble.
"Whoooo man, did [Bennett] play today," Mora said. "This guy can really step it up when it counts."
Said Bennett: "I just talked to the guys. I'd rather not say what was said. Whether it's motivation, you'll have to ask them about that. . . . There's nothing I'd rather be doing than playing football."
The Colts were enjoying themselves immensely with a 14-point lead with four minutes left in the third quarter and an 11-point margin heading into the fourth.
Their defense had held the Patriots to only three field goals, and their boisterous home crowd caused New England to jump offside or miss snap counts all afternoon.
But Bledsoe finally got the Patriots in the end zone by marching his team 57 yards in six plays, finishing off the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jefferson with 3:07 remaining. A two-point conversion failed, and the Patriots trailed, 20-15.
When the Colts' Jason Belser recovered the ensuing onside kick, Indianapolis seemed in control until Manning's fumble. And when the game ended, he was among the most relieved players in the Colts' dressing room.
"You've got to find a way to win these kind of games," Manning said. "Last year, there's no way we win this football game. But this year, we just keep plugging along, we keep fighting, and the defense pulled it out for us."