INDIANAPOLIS – Throughout the season, they made history.
Week after memorable week throughout the 2004 NFL regular season, the storylines around the Colts were dominated by a historical, across-the-board assault on records not only of the team variety, but with a league-wide basis as well.
Around the Colts in '04, anything seemed possible.
The first week of the post-season? Little difference.
Never mind that the opponent talked of intimidation throughout the week, and never mind that that same opponent was motivated by memories of a not-so-distant playoff past.
That wasn't what Round One of the 2004 NFL post-season was about for the Colts.
What it was about was advancing in the post-season.
They did it – again in record-setting fashion.
“When the playoffs come around, you definitely want be hitting on all cylinders," said
“I think we are, and the team keeps getting better every game."
Manning, who set NFL records during the regular season for touchdown passes (49) and passer rating (121.1), did what he did throughout the season:
He took advantage of one of the most-productive receiving corps in NFL history.
Against the Broncos that day, it was a motivated corps, too.
The Colts' receiving corps of Marvin Harrison,
It was, in a very real sense, a group in its prime.
Harrison, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, was in the sixth season of a run of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, while Wayne – a 2001 first-round draft selection – was in the first of what is currently a streak of seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Stokley, acquired as a free agent before the 2003 season, also had 1,000 yards receiving and his 10th touchdown of the season was a dramatic, game-tying touchdown in an overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers in the second-to-last game of the season.
That touchdown also gave Manning a record-setting 49th touchdown.
But in the final week of the regular season, with the Colts having clinched their playoff positioning, the Broncos beat Indianapolis in Denver. Clark sustained a concussion during the game, and while he returned to play the following week, Broncos defenders talked throughout the week of the need to intimidate the Colts' receivers.
Reality was far different.
Manning completed 27 of 33 passes for 458 yards and four touchdowns against Denver, finishing with a 145.7 passer rating. Wayne caught 10 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and Clark caught six passes for 112 yards and a touchdown.
“I wanted to let them know I'd be there all day, not back down or fall to the ground,” Wayne said. “We jumped on them so fast they didn't have any time to say anything.”
Said Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy, “Maybe we need someone to do that every week to challenge our guys. Again, I was proud the way our guys handled that. They know they are a tough group.
“They don’t have to talk about it. They showed up today.”
The Colts, who won eight consecutive games late in the season to clinch a second consecutive AFC South title with a week remaining in the regular season, had beaten the Broncos, 41-10, in a Wild Card game in Indianapolis the previous post-season. In that game, Manning completed 22 of 26 passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns, and the Colts led 31-3 at halftime.
The January 2005 game was something close to a replay.
Manning passed for 361 first-half yards – the most passing yards in the first half of an NFL playoff game – and also had three touchdown passes in the half.
At the time, Manning's 458 passing yards was the second-most in NFL history. Bernie Kosar had thrown for 489 yards in a double-overtime game in 1986.
“It was outstanding execution throughout the entire game,” Manning said. “That’s what we talked about all week. There were a lot of things being said from different directions, and all we talked about was ‘Let’s go out and execute.’ Just because you played well in Week Two or Week 10 or what not doesn’t mean anything once you get into the playoffs, except that you’re capable of doing it.”
Afterward, Broncos defenders spoke of the Colts' offense with respect.
“I'm a little shocked by the way we lost," All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey said. "I thought it would be a little closer. When you play against the best quarterback in the league, he is going to find some weaknesses and exploit them."
The Colts took a 7-0 lead with a two-yard touchdown pass from Manning to running back James Mungro, then running back Edgerrin James' 1-yard run pushed the lead to 14-0. After an interception ended the Colts' next drive, Manning passed 19 yards to Clark, and a 35-yard touchdown pass to Wayne made it 28-3 later in the second quarter.
Manning's 1-yard sneak late in the first half made it 35-3, Colts, all-but clinching a victory and a trip to Foxboro, Mass., against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots the following week.
“I’m really proud of our team, the way we came our very focused today and we just played well,” Manning said. “We talked about coming in and trying to play well in front of our home crowd. That’s a very good ball club that we beat. They are a tough team. They have a lot of weaponry on offense, and they have some really tough defenders.
“Today it just happened to be our day. You could kind of feel it all week. They practiced hard and prepared hard and they knew what was at stake. I’m just proud of them.”