INDIANAPOLIS – As Dwight Freeney saw it, there's no such thing as a perfectly rested, perfectly ready NFL player come January.
But you can get close.
And when the post-season following the 2009 NFL regular season began, Freeney – the Colts' Pro Bowl defensive end – said the reality was the AFC South Champion Colts were about as rested and ready as a franchise can be after 16 games.
That wasn't the only reason the Colts won their first-round playoff game.
But as Freeney saw it, it certainly didn't hurt.
“We felt as good as we can possibly feel,” Freeney said after the Colts pulled away from the visiting Baltimore Ravens for a 20-3 victory in an AFC Divisional Playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, January 16.
“No one's going to go out and feel like they've never taken a hit before preseason football. The biggest thing is, we felt no worse. That's the huge part about it that people don't understand. Sometimes, it's not about, 'OK, you're getting back to 100 percent.'
“You're just not getting any worse. We definitely executed and played well.”
That, after all, was the idea the previous month.
The Colts, who won their first 14 regular-season games, rested many of their starters and front-line players for a quarter and a half in their second-to-last game of the season, and for much of the final three quarters the following week.
They also had a bye week between the end of the regular season and their first playoff game, while the Ravens beat the New England Patriots in an AFC Wild Card game.
Throughout the week leading to the Ravens game, Colts players and coaches spoke of the importance of rest, and being as close to full health as possible.
And against the physical, defensive-oriented Ravens they played like it.
Peyton Manning, the Colts' Pro Bowl quarterback and the 2009 Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player, threw two second-quarter touchdown passes in a two-minute span, and with the defense playing well throughout, the Colts pulled away from a tight game.
“I thought we came out sharp on both sides of the ball and kind of set the tempo for the game,” said Manning, who completed 30 of 44 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. “Obviously, being healthy was important. We had a lot of guys back. . . .
“There's no question veteran football players are going to be a little sore and nicked up late in the season. There's no question the guys used the off week.”
The victory put the Colts in the AFC Championship Game the following week against the New York Jets.
The 67,535 fans who attended the victory over Baltimore totaled a franchise record.
“They were great,” Manning said. “They were outstanding, just like they have been all season for us. I wasn't surprised. I knew they'd be loud and ready to go.”
The Colts had lost Divisional Playoff games the previous four times they had secured a first-round playoff bye, losing to Cleveland following the 1987 season, Tennessee following the 1999 season, Pittsburgh following the 2005 season and San Diego following the 2007 season.
“I never thought it was necessarily where you were playing or when you were playing,” Manning said. “It's about executing on that day. It doesn't matter if you had a bye before, or if you were playing home or away. In the past we've been able to win on the road and I know there was this myth that you couldn't win at home after a bye week, but I didn't believe in it. I always thought the games we hadn't won after a bye week, we didn't play as well as the teams we played.
“Today, we played better than Baltimore and as a result, we won the game.”
The Ravens, who rushed for 234 yards and three touchdowns on 52 carries in a 33-14 Wild Card victory over the New England Patriots the previous week, rushed for 87 yards on 19 carries. Ravens running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns at New England, rushed for 67 yards on 13 carries.
“It was a heck of a performance,” said Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell, who celebrated his 55th birthday.
What the fans saw was a game that – while tight early – turned dramatically and decisively in a two-minute span late in the first half, with Manning throwing touchdown passes to wide receiver Austin Collie and wide receiver
The Colts had taken a 3-0 lead on a 44-yard field goal by Matt Stover, but the Ravens drove 87 yards on 15 plays, using 7:47 to tie the game late in the first quarter with a 25-yard by Billy Cundiff.
Late in the half, the Colts drove 75 yards on 14 plays and took a 10-3 lead when Manning threw a 10-yard pass to Collie in the left side of the end zone. The Ravens failed to convert a first down on the ensuing possession, and the Colts then drove 64 yards on eight plays, pushing the lead to 14 points when Manning threw a short in route to Wayne with three seconds remaining in the half.
“You've got to stay in,” Freeney said. “You've got to keep fighting. We've been doing it all year. We've been winning games different ways all year. We've had to kick five field goals with no touchdowns. We've needed special teams. Sometimes, they don't score 10 points, so it's defense. Sometimes, they put up points and we score 40 points.
“We find different ways to win. Football is a complete, total team sport. As much as whoever wants to make it just about one guy or whatever, it's so much not that. There are 53 guys on this roster. Sometimes, special teams win games. Sometimes, defense wins. Sometimes, the offense wins.
“That's the makeup of this team this year.”