INDIANAPOLIS – What turned into one of the most memorable seasons in the club’s Indianapolis era started out almost anything but such.
The Colts, who came within an eyelash of reaching Super Bowl XXX, started out the season with an opening-day overtime home loss. The quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, who would help guide the club to such exciting heights began the season as a back-up. A losing month of September gave way to a stirring October, then the club battled weekly to the very end of the season. And a team that had not won six division games in a season since doing so from 1975-77 under Head Coach Ted Marchibroda accomplished the feat again under his steady hand, with the final such triumph putting the club into post-season play for the first time in eight years.
All in all, the 1995 season had a little bit of everything, and it was not settled until the final second ticked off the clock.
Indianapolis spent the 1994 season rotating between quarterbacks Jim Harbaugh and Don Majkowski. Days after a draft that yielded future notables as defensive tackle Ellis Johnson, tight end Ken Dilger and running back Zack Crockett, Indianapolis sent its first-round pick in 1996 (along with a conditional second choice) to Tampa Bay for signal-caller Craig Erickson. Erickson was installed as the starter upon his arrival, but it was Harbaugh (wearing number 4 after wearing number 12 in 1994) who took the reigns early in the year.
Week two saw the club trailing 24-3 at the New York Jets early in the third quarter when Harbaugh was inserted into the line-up. A Harbaugh scoring toss was accompanied by a defensive touchdown, 139 total yards from Marshall Faulk and a game-winning 52-yard field goal in overtime as the Colts won, 27-24. Marchibroda stayed with his hot hand and three weeks later, Indianapolis repeated the scenario in Miami, erasing the same 24-3 third-quarter deficit with a 27-24 overtime victory. The road divisional comeback win was sandwiched between home wins over undefeated St. Louis and defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco. The Colts would produce a 4-1 October record by losing at Oakland and topping the Jets again.
Indianapolis dropped the first two games of November against Buffalo and at New Orleans, playing Harbaugh, Erickson and Paul Justin at quarterback because of injuries, while Harbaugh and Justin shared duties against the Saints. The Colts evened their November mark with AFC East wins at New England and against Miami. In topping the Patriots for only the third time on the road since 1983, Harbaugh hit his first eleven passes and the defense limited New England to 51 rushing yards. Against Miami, the club roared to a 24-6 halftime lead and while Indianapolis allowed a 100 individual rusher for the first time in 25 games, linebacker Tony Bennett had three sacks, including one for a safety. The Colts exited November at 7-5.
The first two December opponents, Carolina and Jacksonville, were expansion teams, and the Colts split those games. At Jacksonville, Erickson started for an ailing Harbaugh. He had two scoring tosses, and the club’s special teams excelled with a scoring kickoff return to start the game, a blocked field goal one series later, a fumble recovery in the second quarter that led to a touchdown and by recovering three onside kicks as the club went to 8-6. It marked the team’s highest victory total after 14 games since 1977.
A week later, Indianapolis missed earning a playoff berth with a home loss to San Diego. After tying the contest in the final period with a touchdown and two-point conversion, Indianapolis swiped a San Diego pass but returned the turnover three plays later. The club traded field goals until San Diego took possession with :42 remaining. Kicker John Carney delivered a 43-yard boot with :03 left to decide the game. “We came up a little short,” said Marchibroda. “There is nothing much more to say. I think we are finding out that if we get into it, anything can happen. There is still a lot going for us. Our guys know what is at stake and they will be ready. I told them that we are still in this thing and they have to keep fighting. All you can ask for is to have a chance to get into the playoffs. I have a lot of confidence in our guys.”
A win over New England in the finale meant a Wild Card berth for Indianapolis. Trailing at intermission, 7-0, the Colts kept the Patriots to 79 net yards and without first downs on four of six second-half possessions. Wide receiver Floyd Turner’s 13-yard scoring reception late in the third quarter squared matters after a Chargers turnover, then kicker Cary Blanchard’s 30-yard field goal with 5:51 left gave the Colts the lead. New England missed a long field goal, then defensive backs Jason Belser and Ashley Ambrose intercepted passes to clinch the outcome. It was Ambrose’s second theft in the game. Reserve running back Lamont Warren rushed for 90 yards and caught six passes for 67 yards for an ailing Marshall Faulk (knee). The Colts were playoff-bound.
“The important thing is that our football team deserves to be in the playoffs. Our guys showed a lot of heart and kept coming back,” said Marchibroda. “A couple of guys really deserve mention. Lamont Warren played an outstanding ball game and really made the plays when he had to. Ashley Ambrose had two big interceptions. They both deserve tremendous praise. Neither started all year, but they both made big plays when we had to have them.”
After just facing the Chargers two weeks earlier, Indianapolis was heading for San Diego and the Wild Card Playoffs. The team was seeking its first playoff win in its Indianapolis era, while the last franchise playoff victory came in 1971.
In winning a 35-20 game at San Diego, Harbaugh threw two scoring passes and rushed for a touchdown, his three-yard rush with 6:55 left was the game’s last score. The teams battled through six lead changes before Indianapolis grabbed a 21-17 third-quarter lead on a 42-yard reception by wide receiver Sean Dawkins and never trailed again. Faulk, who amassed 1,553 total yards in 16 games while battling injuries, exited the game after one play and missed the duration of the post-season. Crockett, who had no rushing yards during the year, rushed 13 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns in a stunning performance. His 33-yard burst gave the club a 14-10 halftime lead, and his 66-yard run early in the fourth quarter gave Indianapolis a 28-20 cushion. Indianapolis set a club playoff record with four interceptions.
Up next for the Colts were the top-seeded Chiefs in frigid Kansas City. The Divisional Playoffs were waged in 11-degree temperatures and a wind chill of -9, with a loud crowd of 77,594 in Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City, 8-0 at home during the season, grabbed a 7-0 lead in the final minute of the first quarter. The score came after each team had punted twice. Indianapolis responded in the hostile environment in dramatic fashion. The dome team went on a crusade, marching 77 yards on 18 plays to tie the contest on a five-yard Harbaugh-to-Turner pass on a drive that consumed 8:40. The Colts converted five third-downs and one fourth-down on the drive. Late in the period, Indianapolis missed a 47-yard field goal and Kansas City missed a 35-yarder. Ambrose intercepted a quarterback Steve Bono pass at midfield halfway through the third quarter, and the Colts marched to the Chiefs’ 13. Blanchard hit from 30 yards out with 2:48 remaining with what proved to be the deciding points. Kicker Lin Elliott was wide left on a 39-yard attempt on the next drive, then linebacker Quentin Coryatt and cornerback Eugene Daniel intercepted Bono as time dwindled. Quarterback Rich Gannon directed the last Chiefs drive from his own 18 to the Indianapolis 25, but Elliott missed from 42 yards out with :37 left as Indianapolis prevailed and advanced to the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh. The win gave Marchibroda his 73rd overall as head coach with the club (1975-79; 92-95), tying Don Shula for the most in franchise history.
“This role is a pretty good gig,” said Harbaugh of the team being underdogs.
“Nobody picks us. We’re the Dead-End Kids, so to speak,” said Marchibroda.
“You hear everybody say we’re a bunch of ragamuffins,” said Harbaugh.
The Colts and Steelers met for the conference championship on January 14, 1996, a sunny, 44-degree day in Three Rivers Stadium. The Colts had beaten the defending conference champion Chargers, the top-seeded Chiefs and were meeting the Steelers who were hosting a title tilt for the second straight season. Linebacker Jeff Herrod intercepted a pass on the game’s first scrimmage play, and Indianapolis took a 3-0 lead on a 34-yard Blanchard field goal. Pittsburgh evened matters late in the period, but the Colts re-took the lead when Blanchard converted from 36 yards early in the second quarter. Pittsburgh drained most of the last half of the quarter in taking a 10-7 lead. Quarterback Neil O’Donnell hit wide receiver Kordell Stewart on a five-yard scoring pass after replays indicated Stewart could have stepped on the end line getting open for the reception. Pittsburgh took a 10-6 lead into halftime. Blanchard made it 10-9 early in the third period with a 37-yard field goal, then he missed from 47 yards on the next possession. Pittsburgh countered with a 36-yard Norm Johnson field goal in the final minute of the quarter. After Johnson missed from 40 yards with 10:57 to go, Harbaugh directed the club to a 16-13 lead by hitting Turner on a 47-yard scoring pass with 8:46 left. Pittsburgh punted and Indianapolis failed on a crucial 3rd-and-one rushing attempt at its 29 with less than six minutes to go. Pittsburgh survived a fourth-down conversion and a dropped interception to take the lead on a one-yard touchdown run with 1:34 left. Harbaugh drove the club methodically to the Pittsburgh 29 with :05 left. He then lofted a desperation pass to the end zone among multiple Steelers defenders and Colts receiver Aaron Bailey. With time expired, Bailey fell to the ground with the ball resting on his stomach. He was not able to secure possession until the ball rolled off his stomach and grazed the playing surface. An air of uncertainty hung in the stadium before officials ruled the pass incomplete, game over. The championship chase was finished. Afterward in his private dressing area just seconds after addressing the team in a somber locker room, Marchibroda exclaimed to two people, “First double-overtime, now this.” He was referring to a difficult double-overtime 1977 playoff loss to Oakland and now a current heart-breaking defeat.
“I thought he caught it. Then I saw the replay, and I thought he caught it. About the third time I saw the replay, it looked like it hit the ground,” said Harbaugh of the final play. “I told them I wasn’t so sure they shouldn’t thank each other for playing so hard and so together all season,” said Marchibroda. “We had a great run, and I am just so proud of these guys.”
RECAPPING THE 1995 SEASON
Most memorable moment: In a season of comeback victories and two playoff triumphs, the final play at Pittsburgh likely rated at the top. Rarely does a championship game hinge on the final play of a contest, and rarely is a play so close to happening while it fails. Indianapolis did not give up its fight to the last second, and the replay of the final pass still appears on highlight shows.
Best seasonal performance: Though Faulk had 1,553 total yards and 14 touchdowns and Bennett produced 10.5 sacks and a defense yielded but 91.1 rushing yards per game, Harbaugh’s season-long play (200-314-2,575, 17 TDs/5 ints., 100.7 rating; 235 rushing yards and two TDs) had to stand out. Through comebacks and gutty performances, he earned the nickname, “Captain Comeback.” Seven times Harbaugh had ratings of 100.0 , and he helped direct a squad full of achievers to fight every game to the finish.
Turning point: In a season that could have spun out of control early, two divisional road comebacks from 24-3 second-half deficits at the Jets (September 10) and Miami (October 8) led the way. Indianapolis tied both games in regulation to win on overtime field goals. Kicker Mike Cofer hit from 52 yards to win at the Jets, after missing from 36 and 38 yards earlier. Blanchard decided the Miami contest with a 27-yarder.
Significant moment No. 1: Beating a defending Super Bowl champion is a memorable moment. Indianapolis sacked quarterback Steve Young six times, produced a fourth-and-goal stop in the final minute of the first half (after a previous stop was replayed due to an officials’ ruling) and wiped out two second-half deficits in topping San Francisco, 18-17, on October 15.
Significant moment No. 2: Though quarterback Dan Marino set the NFL record (since broken) for the most NFL career touchdown passes, Indianapolis triumphed over Miami at home on November 26, 36-28. The win put the Colts at 8-6 heading into December.
Significant moment No. 3: Needing a “win-and-in” against New England on December 23 in the finale, the Colts earned a 10-7 victory for their second-ever playoff berth in the Indianapolis era.
Significant moment No. 4: Beating the defending AFC title team in its stadium when the Chargers entered the playoffs on a five-game winning streak (including one in Indianapolis two weeks earlier) rates as significant. The 35-20 victory on December 31 was the first playoff victory for the club since 1971. Ironically, the club’s flight home from the game went over Kansas City at midnight. A jubilant team rang in a New Year over the site that would produce another significant moment just days later.
Significant moment No. 5: The Colts earned a dramatic 10-7 victory in frigid Arrowhead Stadium in the Divisional Playoffs on January 7, one of the NFL’s toughest venues. Battling conditions and the cold, the Colts produced their most significant victory to date in Indianapolis.