INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts were ready to squash the myth.
A team that plays its home games in a dome was heading into frigid temperatures for a 1996 AFC Divisional contest with the Kansas City Chiefs, the AFC’s top-seeded playoff team.
A wind chill of minus-nine degrees greeted Colts Head Coach Ted Marchibroda’s team, along with the assignment of facing the number one defense in the NFL. A sellout crowd of 77,594 full-throated fans would have only a sprinkling of Colts backers, and the size of the crowd would exceed by almost 10,000 the largest audience Indianapolis had played in front of all season.
The contest would have the glare of playoff bright lights and a national television audience, too. Indianapolis, as the AFC’s fifth playoff seed, had traveled to San Diego the previous week and topped the Chargers in the Wild Card round, 35-20. In doing so, the Colts defeated the defending conference champion Chargers who came in with a five-game winning streak.
In entering Arrowhead Stadium, the Colts faced a team that was 13-3 and unbeaten at home, plus it had a week’s rest to prepare for the game.
Additionally, the Colts lost running back Marshall Faulk early in the San Diego game, and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa was out ill as Indianapolis entered Arrowhead.
What would be a defensive struggle became apparent early as the teams traded punts on the first four possessions of the game.
The first score of the afternoon came on the Chiefs third series as quarterback Steve Bono threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lake Dawson. The drive took only 2:28, with the Chiefs covering 62 yards in five plays.
Twenty-nine seconds remained in the first quarter, and the next eight minutes of the game symbolized the Colts’ gritty playoff run that nearly reached Super Bowl XXX.
Indianapolis answered the Chiefs touchdown with a methodical, workman-like drive led by quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
Starting from the Indianapolis 23-yard line, Harbaugh and the offense put together an 18-play drive that was capped off when wide receiver Floyd Turner hauled in a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the Kansas City five-yard line.
The third down scoring play was one of six third- or fourth-down conversions the Colts had on the touchdown drive.
The first one of the conversions was classic Harbaugh, who scrambled for 18 yards on third-and-11 from his 22, escaping the near-clutch of defensive end Neal Smith, who had 12 sacks on the season. Harbaugh teamed with wide receiver Aaron Bailey for 13 yards on third-and-10 two plays after that.
Running back Lamont Warren gained four yards on a fourth-and-one rush at the Chiefs’ 38-yard line moments later and Indianapolis converted two more third-and-sevens prior to the touchdown pass.
Both teams missed field goal attempts later in the second quarter, keeping the score tied at seven heading into halftime. Cary Blanchard’s miss for the Colts came from 47 yards out with 57 seconds left in the half. Kansas City moved to the Colts’ 17 on six plays where Lin Elliott was wide right from 35 yards out.
Following intermission, the Colts defense shut down the Chiefs in the second half.
Cornerback Ashley Ambrose intercepted Bono at midfield with 7:22 remaining in the third quarter and the Colts would take advantage.
Despite having more than a quarter of football left to play, Blanchard kicked what would prove to be the game-winning field goal when he hit a 30-yarder with 2:48 left in the third period. Indianapolis had reached the Kansas City 13-yard line prior to the kick, but could not convert after a first down in the red zone.
In the final frame, Kansas City moved to the Colts’ 22, where Elliott was wide left on a 39-yard effort with 10:36 left.
The Indianapolis offense could produce no first downs on consecutive possessions, but linebacker Quentin Coryatt (Indianapolis missed a 49-yard field goal attempt after Coryatt’s interception) and cornerback Eugene Daniel picked Bono off on back-to-back possessions as Indianapolis took possession with 4:41 left in the game.
Again the Colts could not move and Kansas City used two timeouts to stall the clock, and the Chiefs re-gained possession at their 18-yard line with 4:12 left to play. Rich Gannon subbed for Bono and drove Kansas City to the Indianapolis 25-yard line with 42 seconds left. Elliott missed a 42-yard field goal wide left on the next play and the Colts’ upset was official.
The win moved the Colts to the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh the following week, and the victory at Kansas City was just another in line with heart-stopping games for Indianapolis in 1995. Of the 19 games the Colts played that season, 15 were decided by one possession or less, including three overtime games.
The Colts-Steelers AFC title tilt followed suit with the game being decided at the final gun when a Harbaugh pass from the Pittsburgh 29-yard line eluded the grasp of Bailey, who was surrounded by a host of defenders. When the ball hit the ground, the Colts lost, 20-16.
There have been 20 other games between the Colts and Chiefs, and the Divisional Playoff game in January of 1996 remains the most memorable for Colts fans.