Colts Go Unbeaten in December to Finish Season on Nine-Game Streak
INDIANAPOLIS – For the Colts in 2008, September and October hardly could have been tougher.
In that same sense, December hardly could have been better.
The Colts, after a 3-4 start – their first such start in a decade – won the final nine games of the 2008 regular season, with the team qualifying for a seventh consecutive playoff appearance and its quarterback being named the NFL's Most Valuable Player for a third time.
But the late-season streak did more than put the Colts in the playoffs.
It helped them make history.
The Colts finished 12-4, which marked the sixth consecutive regular season the franchise won 12 or more games. No other NFL team has won 12 or more games in more than four consecutive seasons.
"Our guys wanted that, they really did," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said following the Colts' 23-0 victory over Tennessee in the regular-season finale. "We've talked about that all week. It was something that hadn't been done before in the league, showing that consistency.
"I think the guys who have been here the whole time – (defensive linemen) Raheem (Brock), Dwight (Freeney), (quarterback) Peyton (Manning), (wide receivers) Marvin (Harrison), Reggie (Wayne), (punter) Hunter Smith . . . those guys, it meant a lot to them. They kind of carried the load in practice and set a great tempo.
"It was imant to them. They went out and got it."
Colts center Jeff Saturday was another player who had been with the Colts throughout the streak.
"I don't know if you can say enough about it," Saturday said. "It's an enormous team goal, an enormous team accomplishment. There are teams that don't win 12 games in a season ever. To have done it six years in a row, I don't know that you can put words on it.
"That's a fantastic run. I'm real proud and excited to be a part of it."
Days after the regular season, Manning – in his 11th season – was named the Associated Press' Most Valuable Player, overcoming odds and adversity to do so.
Manning, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, became the second player to receive the honor three times. Brett Favre was the other.
"I really feel like it's a team award," said Manning, who for the season completed 371 of 555 passes for 4,002 yards and 27 touchdowns with 12 interceptions for a 95.0 passer rating, his sixth consecutive season with a rating of 95.0 or better.
"What our team went through this year, with the way we've responded and bounced back from a little bit of football adversity at the beginning of the season – I just can't tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity to play with great football players as teammates. I really accept this award on behalf of the team and the organization."
Manning, who missed training camp and preseason after undergoing knee surgery in July, began the season by throwing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the first seven games.
Had the season ended in late October, the Colts would have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
In nine games after that, Manning completed 209 of 290 passes for 2,153 yards and 17 touchdowns with three interceptions. The Colts won all nine games, beating three division champions – Pittsburgh, San Diego and Tennessee – and also beating New England, which finished 11-5.
A look at the four games in the fourth quarter of the 2008 season:
Game 13: INDIANAPOLIS 35, CINCINNATI BENGALS 3
This one just felt different. And for the Colts, it was a good feeling. Because this time, no late-game heroics were needed. No late-game rally. No game-saving interception. No fourth-quarter stress.
The Colts (9-4), after squeezing five consecutive crucial victories from a nail-biting November, turned in one of their most dominant performances of the season on Sunday, December 7, pulling steadily away for a 35-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (1-11-1) in front of 66,402 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
"It was great to have a fun one," said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, whose 1.5 sacks were part of a second consecutive stifling defensive effort.
"It was a little less stressful out there," Colts offensive tackle Ryan Diem said.
"We haven't had that in such a long time," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "You get them (big leads) by just working hard. You never know when they're going to come. It was fun to have some of our young guys in there and see them play and get some rest for our guys."
The Colts, after winning five November games by a total of 20 points, took a 14-3 halftime lead against Cincinnati, pushed it to 28-3 with a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes by quarterback Peyton Manning, then pulled further away with an 85-yard interception return by cornerback Kelvin Hayden with 5:02 remaining.
"It didn't feel easy out there," said Manning, who completed 26 of 32 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions for a passer rating of 134.0. "We look at teams. We didn't look at records. . . . You still have to go out there and make the plays."
The victory ensured the Colts would finish above .500 for a seventh consecutive season, a streak that began in 2002, Dungy's first season.
"A lot of things about the streak make you feel good," Dungy said. "The fact that we have played tough teams and we've played some teams we may see again. We've had to win different ways. We've had tight games. We've had bad weather, so a lot of things that will prepare us, I think we've come through. That helps you."
Said Manning, "It's truly been a one-game-at-a-time philosophy since we have been 3-4, and that was the philosophy today. That will be the philosophy the rest of the month."
The Colts took a 7-0 lead when running back Dominic Rhodes scored on a 17-yard run with 36 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
After entering the third quarter with a 14-3 lead, the Colts used a 15-play, 81-yard drive to take a three-possession lead – 21-3 – with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Manning to wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez with 6:15 remaining in the quarter.
The Colts pushed their lead to 25 points on the ensuing possession, with tight end Dallas Clark catching a 4-yard touchdown pass from Manning with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter.
Turning point: The Bengals played tough early, but late in the first half, a Cincinnati turnover led to a momentum-changing Colts score. With just over a minute remaining before halftime, Hayden intercepted Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and returned it to the Bengals 15. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moved the ball to the Bengals 7. Two plays later, Manning's 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marvin Harrison gave the Colts a 14-3 halftime lead.
Moment to remember: The Colts scored their second defensive touchdown in as many weeks. Hayden, after setting up a touchdown with a first-half interception, intercepted a pass from reserve quarterback Jordan Palmer and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown with 5:02 remaining. "I guess they had a miscommunication, as me reading the quarterback, I just made a play on it," Hayden said. "That was the easy part of it, running it back."
Note: With the victory over Cincinnati, the Colts became the second team in NFL history to win at least six consecutive games in five consecutive seasons (San Francisco had a seven-season streak, 1989-95). Indianapolis had an eight-game winning streak in 2004, a 13-game winning streak in 2005, a nine-game winning streak in 2006 and seven- and six-game winning streaks last season.
Quote to note: "Everyone thinks these games are going to be easy, and they'll look at the final score and feel like it was. But we had to work. Everybody came out and played well. . . . The second half we got rolling. It was a good effort and the kind of thing you need. I told the team it was what we expected. We got that and now we can look to next week." --- Dungy
Game 14: INDIANAPOLIS 31, DETROIT LIONS 21
On a mid-December afternoon, the Colts made history and moved a step closer to the postseason in the process. But it wasn't easy.
And that surprised the Colts not a bit.
The Colts (10-4) moved closer to a seventh consecutive postseason appearance on the afternoon of Sunday, December 14, pulling away from a fourth-quarter tie for a 31-21 victory over the Detroit Lions (0-14) in front of 66,281 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Every game in the NFL is tough," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "We expected this one to be tough, and it was. . . . It's something we expected. These guys had played a lot of close games on the road. It's not like we didn't expect them to come out and play tough."
The Colts, after leading by seven and 11 points, lost the lead early in the fourth quarter. They then scored the final 10 points to win a seventh consecutive game, secure at least 10 victories for a seventh consecutive season and move to within one victory of a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.
The victory was the sixth time during the seven-game winning streak that the Colts had either trailed or been tied with their opponent in the fourth quarter.
"It has sort of been the theme of our season during this little winning streak," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said after completing 28 of 37 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions for a passer rating of 110.0. "They have kind of been fourth-quarter games. We were playing against a team today, not a record."
The Colts led 21-10 at halftime before Detroit rallied to tie it, 21-21, early in the fourth quarter. The Colts then drove 88 yards on the ensuing possession, with running back Dominic Rhodes – who rushed for 86 yards on 20 carries starting for injured regular Joseph Addai – scoring on a one-yard run with 8:39 remaining.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri's 31-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining secured the victory.
"We're doing some things better," Dungy said. "The consistency is better, and I think special teams we're playing much better than we were early. When we avoid penalties and turnovers, we can play with anyone.
"In this streak, we have done that for the most part. We had some penalties that hurt us today. We had some turnovers, and in the games from here on out, we're not going to be able to have those, but we're making progress."
The Lions kept the game close through the fourth quarter partly because they turned two fumbled Colts punt returns into field goals of 51 and 30 yards by kicker Jason Hanson.
The Colts took the lead quickly, driving 78 yards on 14 plays on the game's first possession and scoring on a 1-yard dive by Rhodes before Detroit took advantage of a Colts turnover to cut the lead to four points.
After Detroit's first possession, a punt by Lions punter Nick Harris hit Colts returner Keiwan Ratliff seconds after Ratliff was bumped by a Lions player. Lions linebacker Anthony Cannon recovered at the Colts 35, and four plays later, Hanson's 51-yard field goal cut the Indianapolis lead to 7-3.
The Colts pushed the lead to 14-3 with a nine-play, 56-yard drive midway through the second quarter. Running back Chad Simpson capped the drive with a two-yard run for his first career touchdown.
The Lions then cut the lead back to four with a three-play 69-yard drive, a possession that ended when second-year wide receiver Calvin Johnson scored on an athletic, 33-yard touchdown reception.
"We weren't as sharp as we'd like to be," Dungy said. "Some of that you have to credit to Detroit, and some of it to us. I thought we had a good week of practice and were ready to go, but every time we got a little margin, we couldn't make the play we needed to put the game away.
The Colts again pushed the lead to 11 on their final possession of the half, a drive keyed by Clark.
Clark, who broke his own single-season franchise record for receptions by a tight end on the drive, not only capped the possession with a leaping, three-yard touchdown reception, he also caught three other passes for 54 yards.
"We don't just want to get there (to the postseason)," defensive end Robert Mathis said. "We want to try to finish our mission. We're not satisfied with getting to the playoffs, but you do have to get there before you can get to Tampa (site of the Super Bowl)."
Turning point: The Lions used an extended drive early in the final quarter to tie it before the Colts retook the lead by covering 88 yards in seven plays. Manning passed 39 yards to Reggie Wayne (seven receptions, 104 yards) to give Indianapolis 1st-and-goal at the 1, and one play later, Rhodes gave Indianapolis a lead it never relinquished. "I think we were cool," Clark said. "There was a little TV timeout, and you could kind of feel in the huddle – there wasn't much talking. Everyone really knew what we had to do. It wasn't ideal field position, but guys really tightened down and little things we were doing all game – little penalties or little miscues here or there that had really prevented some long drives – we didn't do that. We knew we had to go down and score. It was great to see everyone have that mindset and really take it at them and get the touchdown."
Moment to remember: With his second reception against the Lions, Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison moved past Tim Brown (1,094) into third place for third-most receptions in NFL history. Also, wide receiver Reggie Wayne – who caught seven passes for 104 yards against Detroit – had 74 receptions for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns for the season when the Lions game ended. That marked his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Note: Clark, a 2003 first-round selection from the University of Iowa, caught a career-high 12 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first tight end in Colts history to catch 10 or more passes in a single game. "You could tell the focus was on Marv and Reg," Clark said with a smile, referring to Wayne and Harrison. "I know they're not too happy, because they want to get their receptions and their catches and their looks, but I'm just glad to be able to step up like that and make some catches. . . Peyton does a great job of kind of seeing coverages and seeing what they're trying to do. A lot of those checks were Peyton doing what he does and kind of getting us in the right position and in the right call. I was just able to make some moves." On the Colts' final drive, on which they scored on a 31-yard field goal by Vinatieri to secure the victory, Clark's 31-yard reception gave Indianapolis 1st-and-10 at the Lions 31. Manning's lone touchdown pass of the game came in the first half, when he threw high to Clark in the back of the end zone.
Quote to note: "Every team has good players who have a lot of pride and they're going to go out and play hard regardless of their record. We knew (Lions Head) Coach (Rod) Marinelli was going to have them fired up and ready to go and that we were going to get their best shot." --- Colts Offensive Tackle Ryan Diem
Game 15: INDIANAPOLIS 31, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 24
The Colts, who spent much of the season rallying from double-digit second-half road deficits for critical victories, did it again to win an eighth consecutive game and clinch a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.
They also did it in fitting fashion, with their nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback turning in another memorable performance in a memorable season.
Peyton Manning, voted days before to a seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, completed 29 of 34 passes for 364 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, rallying the Colts (11-4) from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in a 31-24 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) in front of 65,648 at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Thursday, December 18,
"It's been a very different season," said Manning, who threw two of his three touchdown passes during the second-half rally.
"For us to win eight in a row now after being 3-4, it's really what we had to do. We had no choice but to do that in order to get into the playoffs. It's certainly been a challenge. We've overcome a lot of obstacles, injuries – just different scenarios.
"We've done it as a team, which has been nice, and it was a pretty fitting way to end this game tonight to clinch a playoff berth."
Manning completed his first 17 passes of the game, including all 13 in the first half, and his 23 consecutive completions over two games was one completion shy of an NFL record.
"Peyton Manning is unbelievable," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "He put a lot of it on his shoulders."
With the victory, the Colts clinched not only a wild-card position for their seventh consecutive playoff appearance, they also clinched the No. 5 seed in the AFC.
"It just seemed like we were going to have to clinch it on the road, and we were probably going to have to come from behind," Dungy said. "It's just been the way the year is. We said at halftime, 'We're not really playing well and they're playing well. We're going to have to play harder and longer than they do and hope for some good things to happen.'
"That's what happened. We didn't go out and necessarily play better in the second half, but we fought and made some good things happen at the end."
Said Manning, "You never take winning for granted. It's hard to win one game and it's extremely hard to win eight in a row like we have."
But even with Manning's near-perfect night, the Colts not only needed their fourth double-digit road rally of the season, they needed big plays late from the defense.
The Colts, after trailing by 10 points entering the fourth quarter, rallied with a touchdown pass from Manning to Dallas Clark, and a 45-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, to make it, 24-24.
Colts cornerback Keiwan Ratliff returned an interception 35 yards on the ensuing possession to give Indianapolis its first lead with 4:48 remaining.
On the Jaguars' final possession, they drove to the Colts' 7 with :17 remaining. On 2nd-and-goal from the 7, Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney sacked quarterback David Garrard for a nine-yard loss, and the Jaguars did not have time to run another play.
"Our defense made some plays," Dungy said. "We hadn't played great all day. We got to the fourth quarter and obviously Keiwan's play was a big play. We got a couple of timely sacks when we needed it, and we got the job done. . . .
"For a long time there, it was in doubt. We didn't play our best football and we had some mistakes and things that normally don't happen to us, but . . . I have to give their team a lot of credit for playing a game like this when they're not in the playoff race. They wanted to knock us out for sure. They played well, but I was very proud of our guys for fighting.
"We said at halftime we were going to have to play harder, longer than they did. We made some plays right at the end to win it."
Turning point: When Ratliff, a fifth-year cornerback from the University of Florida, returned a fourth-quarter interception 35 yards for a touchdown, it not only gave the Colts the victory, it was the highlight moment of his NFL career. "That's the biggest play of my career so far," Ratliff said. "It's one thing to do it in practice. It's one thing to do it in preseason. But to do it with the playoffs on the line and on the road, it's huge." The Colts, after trailing 17-7 and 24-14, rallied to tie the game, 24-24, with a 45-yard field goal by Vinatieri with 6:28 remaining. Three plays later, the Jaguars faced 3rd-and-4 on their 28. Garrard, who completed 28 of 41 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown, had yet to throw an interception in the game. But on the play, he threw to his left, and Ratliff intercepted, weaving past a Jaguars tackler, getting a block from safety Bob Sanders and scoring his first NFL touchdown. "It was one of those plays where you watch film and you practice things, and you hope for things to work out that way," Ratliff said. "It just so happened to work out that way. I don't think the quarterback ever saw me. Any time you catch the ball on an interception you're thinking. 'I've got to get in the end zone somehow."
Moment to remember: Afterward, as the media waited for Dungy to make his postgame comments, a loud cheer could be heard from the Colts' locker room. "It was a big win for us," Dungy said. "It puts us in the playoffs. It was a long fight back from 3-4. To win eight straight the way we won them, to go on the road and win tough games . . . I like where we are right now. We'll get a chance to play Tennessee next week and find out who we play in the playoffs. It's a good feeling to be in. It's seven times in a row for a bunch of these guys and that says a lot. I'm very, very proud of them."
Note: With the victory, the Colts clinched their seventh consecutive playoff appearance. That meant that the Colts' largely homegrown roster had experienced a remarkable run of success. The roster for the Jacksonville game contained 45 players who had been with the team their entire careers, and of that group, only seven – wide receiver Reggie Wayne, Manning, offensive tackle Ryan Diem, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, center Jeff Saturday, punter Hunter Smith and long snapper Justin Snow – had played on a Colts team that failed to make the playoffs. "It's a blessing," said Colts defensive end Raheem Brock, who has qualified for the playoffs in each of his seven seasons. "All my years being here, making the playoffs every year and going out and clinching this playoff appearance down here in Jacksonville – that's a big win and it's a blessing."
Quote to note: "This is awesome. We came in here to get a win. We knew it was going to be tough. It was a total, total team effort, a 60-minute battle. They fought us the whole way. It's unbelievable to be a part of an organization that is continually in the playoffs every year." --- Colts safety Bob Sanders
Game 16: INDIANAPOLIS 23, TENNESSEE TITANS 0
In a sense, the game was without meaning. And yet, in a very real sense, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said that wasn't the case at all.
The streaking Colts (12-4), with a chance to not only make history but to maintain late-season momentum, accomplished both feats in memorable fashion in the regular-season finale, pulling away for a 23-0 victory over the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans (13-3) in front of 66,721 at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
"I told the team (Saturday) night that every game has its own identity," Dungy said. "No matter how the games played out this year, we've been able to find a way these last eight weeks to win them. That was the same thing today."
The Colts made history individually, with wide receiver Marvin Harrison, tight end Dallas Clark and Peyton Manning reaching personal milestones before early exits.
They made it as a team, too.
With the victory, the Colts won a 12th game for a sixth consecutive season. The Colts won 12 games in 2003 and 2004, 14 in 2005, 12 in 2006 and 13 in 2007.
"Peyton and I said it today, this morning as we were talking, '11-5 or 12-4 . . . you tell me which sounds better,' " Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "Twelve-and-four, obviously. It's something we had in mind that we wanted to get."
The Colts won their last nine games to reach the mark, a streak that matched their second-longest winning streak in Dungy's seven seasons. They won their first nine games of the 2006 season and also won 13 consecutive games to start the 2005 season.
Clark, the Colts' sixth-year tight end, stayed in the game until the second quarter, leaving after he caught a 23-yard pass to set the Colts franchise record for receiving yardage by a tight end. Clark caught six passes for 59 yards and finished the season with 77 receptions for 848 yards and six touchdowns.
Jim Sorgi, filling in for Manning, directed a 70-yard, 14-play drive on his first series – the Colts' second of the game – a series that ended with a 28-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri to give the Colts a 10-0 lead.
The Colts outgained Tennessee, 274-30, in the first half, and held the Titans to one first down. Sorgi finished the first half having completed 19 of 27 passes for 139 yards, while Manning completed seven of seven passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, as the Titans also removed many of their starters during the first quarter or soon thereafter.
"We played well and we wanted to get off to a fast start with our first group and we did," Dungy said. "Obviously, they (the Titans) didn't have the incentive like a playoff game. We had the home crowd and a few things we were trying to reach individually, and I think that carried us through."
Turning point: Manning, who started his 176th consecutive regular-season game, threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to running back Joseph Addai on the game's first series. Not only did the Titans not threaten after that, Manning passed for 95 yards on the drive, surpassing the 4,000-yard mark for the season for the ninth time in his 11 NFL seasons. Manning's nine 4,000-yard seasons are an NFL record. Dan Marino threw for 4,000 or more yards in six seasons. Manning and many offensive starters left the game after the first drive. "It was a pretty good team effort on all parts," Manning said. "We got a touchdown on the first drive and started making substitutions. Young guys came in in different spots. Running backs came in and did a good job and some of those young linemen came in and did a good job. And defensively, having the shutout is nice."
Moment to remember: Late in the first half, Harrison left to an ovation from fans and to congratulations from his teammates and coaches after moving into second place on the NFL's all-time receptions list. Harrison, a 13-year veteran and eight-time Pro Bowl selection, caught seven passes for 31 yards, surpassing Cris Carter (1,101 receptions) with his seventh of the game. Harrison now has 1,102 receptions for 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns for his career. "As a former player, when guys have worked hard and they're within reach of things that really are meaningful to them, you like to see them get the chance to get it," Dungy said. "You have to keep in mind the team goals and injures and those kinds of things. But I think it was good. We had a number of guys who had a chance to get some things. They worked hard and got them. I'm glad we were able to."
Note: For the Colts' defense, the day had historical meaning. The shutout was the first for Indianapolis since beating the Miami Dolphins, 41-0, on December 14, 1997. "It was great," Colts defensive end Raheem Brock said. "We knew the young guys were going to take over in the second half. That's why we told them how important it (winning a 12th game) was. Plus, we wanted that momentum. The younger guys went in there and played great defensively, especially on the defensive line. It looked like they're going to help us in the playoffs. It's exciting to see that."
Quote to note: "You don't take for granted winning football games. To win 12 games this year, especially being 3-4, is a testament to our players and coaches for grinding away, continuing to work and staying together. Obviously, we want to keep it going." --- Manning