INDIANAPOLIS – Though the first season of the Tony Dungy era clearly was a success, with a 10-6 record and a return to the playoffs accomplished in 2002, the Colts had some unfinished business to address in 2003 – finding a way to not just reach the playoffs but advance.
Since 1995, when they reached the AFC Championship game under Coach Ted Marchibroda, the Colts had not made it beyond the first round, dropping four in a row, including a 41-0 verdict at the hands of the New York Jets in 2002.
With their “Triplets” all in peak form, the Colts came back stronger than ever in 2003, posting a 12-4 regular-season record, winning the AFC South for the first time and returning to the AFC Championship game, falling one step shy of the Super Bowl in a 24-14 loss to the New England Patriots.
Quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 4,267 yards and 29 touchdowns and earned his first NFL MVP award, sharing the honor with Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair. Running back Edgerrin James had his best season since knee surgery in 2001 with 1,259 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and became the franchise’s all-time rushing leader. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison continued his epic career with 94 receptions for 1,272 yards and 10 touchdowns.
It was the fourth time in five seasons the Colts produced a 4,000-yard passer along with a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver, an unprecedented accomplishment in NFL history. It would have been five straight had James not missed two games in 2002, winding up with 989 rushing yards.
Led by those three Hall-of-Fame talents, the Colts tied for second in the league in points per game at 27.9, while the defense had a plus-10 turnover ratio (30 takeaways compared to 20 giveaways), sixth-best in the league. Kicker Mike Vanderjagt broke the NFL record by extending his streak to 41 consecutive field goals made.
The draft landed two future stars in tight end Dallas Clark (first round) and defensive end
RECAPPING THE 2003 SEASON
Most memorable game: Riding a 4-0 start, coming off a 55-21 drubbing of New Orleans, the Colts headed into a Monday Night Football matchup in Tampa Bay on a roll, but the Buccaneers were intent on spoiling their former coach’s first return engagement. It looked like a blowout loss was in the making as the Bucs jumped to leads of 21-0, 28-7 and 35-14 after Ronde Barber returned an interception for a touchdown with five minutes left in the game. But the fun was just starting for the Colts. Brad Pyatt’s 90-yard kickoff return set up a three-yard touchdown run by James Mungro, making it 35-21. The Colts then went for the onsides kick and Idrees Bashir recovered. Shortly thereafter Manning and Harrison hooked up for a 28-yard touchdown, and it was 35-28. The defense then came up with the first of two huge stops, giving the ball back to Manning, whose 52-yard bomb to Harrison set up a one-yard scoring run by Ricky Williams, tying the game at 35-all with 25 seconds left and forcing overtime. In the extra session, the defense again held the Bucs and Manning marched the Colts downfield, setting up a field goal attempt for the usually reliable Vanderjagt. He missed, but an unusual leaping penalty against Tampa Bay’s Simeon Rice gave Vanderjagt a second chance. This one was hardly routine as the kick hit the right upright from 29 yards out but bounced through, completing the miracle comeback. The win gave the Colts a 5-0 record for the first time since 1977, and it was the first of many fast starts the team would pull off in the decade. The win marked the first time in NFL history a team rallied to win after trailing by 21 points with four minutes left in regulation, and it tied the club record for biggest comeback. It also would mark the start of a trend as the Colts would win three more games with comebacks from double-digit deficits, three times in the fourth quarter. They trailed Houston, 14-3, in the second quarter of a 30-21 victory on October 26; trailed Buffalo, 14-3, in the fourth quarter of a 17-14 win on November 23; and trailed Houston, 17-3, in the fourth quarter of a 20-17 victory on December 28. The final comeback win at Houston determined the division crown for the Colts. Indianapolis had dropped the 2002 AFC South title by losing twice to Tennessee. Indianapolis topped Tennessee twice in 2003, but needed the final win in Houston to earn the division title.
Best seasonal performance: Manning had a spectacular season, leading the NFL in passing yards and completion percentage (.667) to earn his first MVP award. In the process, he became the first quarterback in league history to produce five consecutive seasons of at least 4,000 passing yards, and established a league record streak with his sixth consecutive season of at least 25 touchdown passes. During the 2003 season, he broke Johnny Unitas’ record of 92 consecutive starts, extending his streak to 96 by season's end – the most ever to start a career. He established a club record with six TD passes in his hometown of New Orleans on September 28. He got even better in the first two playoff games, completing 44-of-56 (78.6 percent) for 681 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions, posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating against Denver and a near-perfect 138.8 against Kansas City. Indianapolis won those games, 41-10 and 38-31, respectively.
Turning point: Despite the remarkable regular season, there was reason for consternation heading into the playoffs. Not only had the Colts lost their last four postseason games – and had not won at home since the franchise moved to Indianapolis in 1984 – but they were facing a Denver team that had handed them a 31-17 defeat just two weeks earlier. The rematch was entirely different. The Colts scored on their first seven possessions on their way to a 41-10 blowout of the Broncos, giving the RCA Dome crowd plenty of thrills in the process. Manning became the fourth player in league history to post a perfect quarterback rating in a playoff game (joining Don Meredith, Terry Bradshaw and Dave Krieg), completing 22-of-26 passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns. Two of the scores were to Marvin Harrison but Brandon Stokley also had a big game with 144 reception yards and two touchdowns. The defense forced three turnovers, including two interceptions of Jake Plummer by David Macklin. It was the first home playoff victory since January 3, 1971, when the Colts won the AFC Championship game in Baltimore, 27-17 over Oakland. The Colts also established a club record for points in a postseason game. It proved the Colts could indeed win a big game behind their prolific offense and helped set the tone for the postseason success the team would enjoy in the years to come.
Significant moment: Considering the Colts’ second playoff game against Kansas City matched the two top offensive teams in the NFL, units that had combined for more than 930 points and 11,000 total yards, it should have come as no surprise that this one was a shootout. The Colts once again started quickly and scored on six of their eight possessions in a 38-31 victory that sent them into the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1995. In snapping Kansas City’s 13-game home winning streak, the Colts got 304 yards passing and three touchdowns from Manning, and 125 rushing yards and two touchdowns from James. For the second playoff game in a row, the Colts did not punt. Though the Colts would fall, 24-14, to their biggest rivals, the Patriots, in the conference championship matchup, they established themselves as much more than just a prolific regular-season team but a real threat to win a Super Bowl.