Colts Go Unbeaten in Third Quarter of 2008 Season
INDIANAPOLIS – It wasn't easy. Not even close.
But as Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy saw it, the month of November 2008 was not only satisfying, it was absolutely critical to the team's playoff hopes.
The Colts, after playoff appearances from 2002-2007, entered the month under .500 and deep in the AFC playoff chase. They won all games they played that month, including a 4-0 record in the third quarter of the season.
The stretch moved the Colts to the front of the AFC Wild Card race.
"Every game is a playoff game," Colts defensive end Robert Mathis said during a month in which all five Colts victories came by seven points or less. "We have no room for error because of our shortfalls early in the season. We're pretty much in catch-up mode. We're on a roll. We're just trying to keep it going and not have any slipups or whatever.
"If we just keep playing team ball, we'll be all right."
Throughout the month, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning stayed hot, beginning a late-season run that would result in his being named the Associated Press' NFL Most Valuable Player for a third time. He threw nine touchdowns and two interceptions in the month.
Throughout the month, Manning spoke of the Colts' scratching and fighting for victories.
Of the Colts' five victories:
- All came by six points or less.
- Three came on the road.
- One came on a defensive touchdown.
- Another came on a 51-yard field-goal as time expired.
"It's November and December," Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. "Toward the end of the season, we're out there fighting. If it comes down to the end, we have to hang in there and continue to fight. In the long run, it might help us out a little bit."
Dungy said the month in a very real sense began after a late-October loss to Tennessee in Nashville. The loss dropped the Colts four games behind the Titans in the AFC South with nine games remaining. For the first time since 2002, Dungy said focus turned to the wild-card chase rather than the division title.
"We said after we lost to Tennessee (in late October), that all of these AFC games would be imant," Dungy said. "Because of our tiebreaker situation, we couldn't afford to lose any. (We knew) most of these guys (November opponents) would be in the playoff hunt with us. It just seems like week in and week out, they've been tight games, a lot of them on the road. I think our young guys have gotten a feel for what it's going to be like in the playoffs."
During November, the Colts beat five AFC teams, including four – Houston, New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego – that would finish .500 or better. New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego had won division titles the season before and Pittsburgh and San Diego would repeat as division titlists.
And by the end of December, the Colts were atop the AFC wild-card standings, in control of their playoff destiny, but with significant work remaining.
"We have to continue to win," Dungy said. "What this November run did for us was set us up, put us in position. We don't have to rely on anybody else. We can go into December knowing if we win our games, we're in. That's a good feeling.
"Playing that way, and playing pressure games, I think it is going to be good for us."
A look at the four games in the third quarter of the 2008 season:
Game 9: INDIANAPOLIS 24, PITTSBURGH STEELERS 20
On a windy, gray western Pennsylvania day, the Colts made a bit of history on Sunday, November 9. But to Colts players that day, history mattered just a bit.
What mattered more was the present.
Because to Colts players, a 24-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in front of 64,043 at Heinz Field was not just notable for being the franchise's first victory in Pittsburgh in more than four decades. It was notable for how it was achieved.
The Colts battled a division leader. They rallied from an early deficit. They fought. They scrapped. They made big, timely plays.
And because they did, they stayed very much alive in a tightly-contested AFC.
"We played good against a good team," defensive tackle Raheem Brock said after the Colts (5-4) rallied from a 10-point second-quarter deficit to beat the Steelers (6-3), who entered the game with the AFC's second-best record.
"We played for 60 minutes. Everybody made a big play here and there. That's what we needed. . . . We should expect that every week. Every game should be like that. I think everybody's starting to understand that. We're learning how to play 60 minutes."
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw a season-high three touchdowns without an interception, with his last touchdown pass – a 17-yarder to running back Dominic Rhodes – giving the Colts a 24-20 lead with 3:04 remaining.
"It truly was a team victory," said Manning, who completed 21 of 40 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions for a passer rating of 95.8. "That was what we needed."
The Colts, who entered November under .500 for the first time in a decade, after the Steelers game had won back-to-back games against division leaders, coming from behind in the second half to do so in each game. Indianapolis rallied from a five-point deficit to beat New England in Indianapolis the previous week.
"This was an important win because it was the next game for us," Manning said. "We certainly know how tough it is to come in here on the road and play. . . . We have played better football the last two weeks. We've played good team football and we've played winning football. . . .
"We are fighting and scratching. We've kind of been the underdog. People aren't really expecting us maybe to win the game. This is the type of football and the conditions we're playing in. We're beat up. We have a lot of new guys playing. We truly are kind of fighting and scratching and clawing and trying to find a way to have a chance in the fourth quarter to win the game."
The victory over the Steelers allowed Indianapolis to stay within a game of New England (6-3), Pittsburgh, Baltimore (6-3) and the New York Jets (6-3).
"Somewhere along the line we have to get on a streak," Dungy said. "We can't really worry about everybody else. We have to get ourselves playing better. I think today was a step in the right direction."
The Steelers took the opening kickoff and moved 62 yards on 10 plays, taking a 7-0 lead when running back Mewelde Moore – playing in place of injured starter Willie Parker – scored on a 1-yard run with 9:07 remaining.
On the fourth play of the ensuing series, Manning threw deep to wide receiver Reggie Wayne. The ball caromed off the hands of Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor and into the hands of Wayne, who broke a tackle and scored to complete a 65-yard touchdown pass.
Early in the second quarter, Moore scored on his second one-yard touchdown run of the game to give Pittsburgh a 14-7 lead. Wide receiver Hines Ward set up the touchdown with a 41-yard reception from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on a flea-flicker play.
The Steelers pushed the lead to 17-7 on a 42-yard field goal by Jeff Reed 4:18 before halftime.
The Colts made it a three-point game with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Manning to tight end Dallas Clark with :06 remaining in the first half.
The Colts took the second-half kickoff and moved 56 yards in 12 plays, tying the game with a 36-yard field goal by kicker Adam Vinatieri.
"We just have to learn how to play 60 minutes and know every game is going to be tough like that," Brock said. "We can't look down to anybody with any kind of record. We just have to go in there with that mind-frame that it's going to be a tough game. We have to play for 60 minutes.
"A lot of the young guys are stepping up and you can tell they're learning how to play. We just want to keep it going. If we get a streak going, we'll be good."
Turning point: The Colts trailed 17-7 late in the first half, but a Steelers turnover created a chance to cut the deficit. On 3rd-and-2 from the Steelers 16, Roethlisberger was intercepted by cornerback Keiwan Ratliff – making a second consecutive start for injured starter Kelvin Hayden – and his three-yard return gave Indianapolis possession at the Steelers 30. "Getting that pick by Keiwan, that really got our offense back in the game," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said. Six plays later, Manning's 2-yard pass to Clark made it 17-14 with :06 remaining in the half.
Moment to remember: The Steelers drove into Colts territory after Rhodes' touchdown, and on the game's final play, Roethlisberger threw into the end zone from the Colts 27. The ball was tipped, and appeared headed for a Steelers receiver until Colts safety Melvin Bullitt stuck out his hand and made a one-handed interception in the end zone. The clock read 0:00. "When the ball got tipped in the air, I noticed there was another player behind me," Bullitt said. "Once it got tipped, I knew I had to come down with it so we could get out of here."
Note: With the score tied 17-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Steelers had a chance to take a one-touchdown lead. It didn't happen and the Colts' defense – and particularly rookie defensive tackle Eric Foster – made certain of it. Taking possession late in the third quarter, the Steelers moved patiently toward the end zone, and after a nine-yard run by running back Mewelde Moore, faced 1st-and-goal at the Colts 5. Three plays later, Reed kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Steelers a three-point lead. But in between, the Colts had one of their more impressive defensive stands of the season. First, safety Antoine Bethea tackled Moore at the Indianapolis 1 to set up 2nd-and-goal from the 1, and one play later, Foster and defensive end Robert Mathis stopped Moore for no gain. On 3rd-and-1, the Steelers again ran Moore up the middle, and Foster hit him hard for no gain, forcing the short field goal by Reed. "It was big," Dungy said. "They ran the same plays they scored on before. Everybody knew what the play was going to be and we came off and stuffed it. Obviously, that was a big momentum play to hold them to three there." Said Foster, "I faked two guys and I popped straight up, because I knew he was going to try to go over the top again. It's a great feeling."
The history that mattered less than the present? This was the club's first win in Pittsburgh since 1968.
Quote to note: "This was a game . . . just attitude, hanging in there and making plays when it counted. . . . All in all, it's just very, very satisfying." --- Dungy
Game 10: INDIANAPOLIS 33, HOUSTON TEXANS 27
In the middle of a playoff chase, the Colts found a way to be efficient offensively, and found a way to overcome an early deficit yet again.
They also found a way to win.
The Colts, seeking their first three-game winning streak of the season, got it on Sunday, November 16, doing so by rallying from first- and second-half deficits for a key 33-27 AFC South victory over the Houston Texans in front of 66,201 at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
"It was a big win for us," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "It was a good one to get. It's very difficult to beat a team twice. We were able to do that."
The Colts, who entered the game ranked 22nd in the NFL offensively at 310.8 yards per game, not only produced a season-high 474 yards offense, they also produced season-highs in points (33), rushing yards (154) and first downs (30).
"Obviously, it's all about winning," said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who completed 30 of 46 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns and did not throw an interception for a third consecutive game. "It (the offensive performance) came at a good time to have this game and hopefully, we can build off of it."
For the Colts, it wasn't just the third consecutive victory in Lucas Oil Stadium after losses in the first two games, it was their first three-game winning streak since 2007.
"We're on a three-game streak now," Dungy said. "We hadn't gotten one all year. November is the time to get them."
The Colts, after scoring field goals on three of four first-half possessions, scored touchdowns on their first three second-half possessions, a stretch in which they turned a 13-9 halftime deficit into a 30-20 lead.
"Touchdowns instead of field goals," Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. "We kind of left some plays on the field in the first half. We were able to come in at halftime, make some adjustments and come out and start turning those points into touchdowns."
The Colts took their first lead early in the third quarter, with Manning passing 23 yards to running back Joseph Addai for a 16-13 lead.
On the third play of the ensuing series, Texans rookie running back Steve Slaton's 71-yard touchdown – the longest scoring run in franchise history – gave Houston a 20-16 lead.
Indianapolis continued its efficiency on the ensuing drive, with Addai capping a seven-play, 80-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown for a 23-20 lead.
Following another Colts touchdown, the Texans cut it to 30-27 with a 2-yard touchdown by Ahman Green with 8:54 remaining in the game, and after a 31-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with 1:52 remaining, the Texans had a final chance. But Indianapolis safety Melvin Bullitt intercepted Rosenfels on the Colts 35 to end the threat.
"Defensively, I know our guys aren't pleased, but that's what happens sometimes," Dungy said. "Last week (against Pittsburgh), our defense got the takeaways, and made a couple of big plays and allowed us to be in the game.
"This week, it was our offense that kind of saved us in the second half with those long drives and the touchdowns. All in all, a good win for us. Now, we have to turn our focus to San Diego."
Turning point: Bullitt, the Colts' second-year safety, turned in the Colts' lone takeaway against the Texans, intercepting quarterback Sage Rosenfels with :32 remaining. It was Bullitt's team-high fourth interception of the season, but as importantly, his second game-clinching interception in as many weeks and third in 10 games. "It's being in the right spot at the right time," said Bullitt, who started in place of two-time Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders. The Texans took possession at their 24 with 1:57 remaining following a field goal by Vinatieri. They drove to the Houston 48, and on 1st-and-10, Rosenfels threw deep to his right for tight end Owen Daniels. Bullitt cut toward the middle of the field from the sidelines, and sliding in front of Owens, snared the pass for the game-clinching interception. "Any time the ball's in the air, everybody's like, 'I'm going to get the pick,''' Bullitt said. "That's what we did. We got another one and it just happened to be a game-ender."
Moment to remember: The Colts gained a key first down in the fourth quarter when Dungy challenged an official's spot after a reception by Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison on 3rd-and-9 from the Texans 34. Officials initially placed the ball at the 17, short of the first down. After Dungy's challenge, officials re-spotted the ball at the 16 for a first down. "We thought we were going to get it," Dungy said. Four plays later, Vinatieri's 31-yard field goal gave the Colts a six-point lead with 1:52 remaining.
Note: Addai, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and a 2007 Pro Bowl selection, against the Texans rushed for more than 100 yards for the first time in more than a year, and the Colts turned in a season-high 154 yards rushing. Addai rushed for 105 yards on 22 carries. "It gets frustrating, but you still have to stick with it," Addai said Sunday after rushing for a third-quarter touchdown catching a touchdown pass in the same period. "That's the biggest thing, just coming back after games, coming in on Wednesday and getting refocused and getting it going into the direction you want to go in. The biggest thing is getting a win. We were able to do that."
Quote to note: "November and December – everybody knows that's the time when the good football teams step up. Usually, in November and December we play pretty well. We're doing that again. It's at the right time. We just have to keep pushing on. The good teams step out in November and December. That's what this game's all about." --- Colts running back Dominic Rhodes
Game 11: INDIANAPOLIS 23, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 20
Once again, the Colts and San Diego Chargers played a memorable, nail-biting game. Once again, it was a prime-time showdown on national television with playoff implications. Once again, it came down to the right leg of one of the best all-time clutch kickers in NFL history.
This time, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri did what he has done so often.
He came up big.
A year after missing a short field goal on a rain-soaked field in a loss at San Diego Vinatieri on Sunday, November 23, had an opportunity to give Indianapolis a memorable victory on a cool, clear Southern California evening.
This time, his 51-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with 0:00 remaining, giving the Colts a dramatic 23-20 victory in front of 68,428 at Qualcomm Stadium.
"You can't really change last year's outcome, obviously," Vinatieri said of a 29-yard missed field goal in the final two minutes of a two-point Chargers victory at Qualcomm the previous season.
"That kick will stay with me a long time, but at least it was nice to be able to get back out there and have another shot at it. The team played great, and moved the ball down the field. When your number's called, you have to go out there and do it.
"Making that kick, it was pretty sweet."
Said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, "You felt good about Adam making it. That's why he's the best kicker around – in all-time, in my opinion."
Added safety Antoine Bethea, "It was huge. It was a 60-minute dogfight, but you know, offense, defense, special teams stuck in there and hung in there. AV (Vinatieri) came through with a big field goal at the end. They ended our season last year. We knew it was a do-or-die for them. We knew we were going to get their all here at their home. Whatever they threw at us, we had to handle. It was a 60-minute dogfight and we came out with a big win."
Vinatieri's kick ended a dramatic, back-and-forth game in the teams' second meeting on NBC's Sunday Night Football in as many seasons.
"It was a great win, to come in here and play these guys here at their place," said Manning, who completed 32 of 44 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns with an interception for a passer rating of 92.5. "We felt good we'd have a chance to win it at the end, and this time we did it. . . .
"We're fighting and scratching and clawing. That's kind of the phrase we're using. We're just kind of finding a way and scratching and getting it done. It feels good to get this win tonight."
With the victory, the Colts maintained the AFC's fifth seed over Baltimore (7-4) and New England (7-4) because of a superior conference record and because of head-to-head victories over each team. Pittsburgh (8-3) and the New York Jets (8-3) led the North and East, respectively, with Denver (6-5) leading the West.
"We put ourselves in such a hole to start the season," Manning said. "We really can't afford to give one back. Every week is kind of that do-or-die situation. You don't want to give one back to the field. Every game's a dogfight. Every game you kind of expect a close game.
"These past few games we've won have all been fourth-quarter games. That's all you ask for is an opportunity, and fortunately, we've made the plays, but we're earning them. Hopefully, we keep that going."
Turning point: The Colts, after trailing 10-3 in the first half, took a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter before San Diego tied it with a 47-yard field goal by Nick Kaeding with 1:30 remaining. The Colts then drove 37 yards in eight plays, with a 14-yard pass on 4th-and-1 to eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison setting up Vinatieri's game-winner. The first-down-converting pass to Harrison came one play after officials ruled a pass from Manning to Harrison on 3rd-and-5 was a yard short. Officials originally ruled the play a first down, then ruled he was short by an inch. "I thought it was going to be a first down," Dungy said. "We had the same crew last year – same thing, same situation. I don't know how we figure out the ball is six inches this way or that way. We said if it wasn't a first down, we wanted to run the clock down a little bit and go for it. We had a chance to get one play. Even if we missed it on fourth down, they still would have a long way to go. We felt they would be up there to stop the run. We had single coverage and got a pass to Marvin."
Moment to remember: An instant after the football left his foot, well before it sailed through the Qualcomm Stadium uprights, Indianapolis' 13-year veteran kicker's fist was in the air. "When it left my foot, I felt like I hit real well," Vinatieri said shortly after his 51-yard field goal with no time remaining – his second 50-plus-yard, game-winner in the last four games. "You always have to look up to confirm where it's going, but it looked like it was pretty much down the middle. At that point, you start celebrating. It was pretty great." Vinatieri said. "When Adam missed out here last year, I felt like if we had a chance to kick a field goal it didn't really matter where it was from, I thought he would make it," Dungy said. "It was one of those things. You just felt good about it. Adam's a pro. I think he wanted to come out here and have a game-winner. It worked out well for him."
Note: The victory was the Colts' fourth in succession after back-to-back losses in late October. It also gave them a 4-0 in November, with the victories coming by three (New England), four (Pittsburgh), six (Houston) and three (San Diego) points. "We're doing the things you have to do," Dungy said. "We're hanging in there and giving ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter. I like where we are. We've improved every week. We just have to keep battling and keep going and get ready to go into December. . . . We're playing better than we've played all year. This is the time you want to do it. We have the confidence we can go into tough places and win. We've played a lot of the teams that are going to be competing for those playoff spots in the AFC and won four in a row in November. I like where we are."
Quote to note: "We remember that taste in our mouth when they took us out of the playoffs (after the 2007 season). They took us out of the playoffs. They're a good team. We have to take our hats off to them. They always play us pretty good, plus we owe them this win right here. We had to come in and get this win." --- Colts defensive tackle Raheem Brock
Game 12: INDIANAPOLIS 10, CLEVELAND BROWNS 6
The result on the last Sunday of November was strikingly similar to what it had been in recent weeks: An early deficit. A big play or two here or there.
A close, hard-fought victory.
The Colts (8-4), who struggled offensively nearly the entire game and trailed throughout much of it, took their first lead on a fourth-quarter defensive touchdown, rallying for a 10-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns (4-8) in front of 72,411 on a gray, windy wet afternoon in Cleveland Stadium on Sunday, November 30.
"It was a big win for us," said Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy, who ensured his 12th consecutive season as a head coach with a record of .500 or better. "They're all tough to get and it seems like every time we come here, it comes down to the last play and it's a tight game.
"I thought we had a lot of guys step up today and a lot of guys make big plays when we needed them."
Robert Mathis, the Colts' sixth-year veteran defensive end, returned a fourth-quarter fumble by Browns quarterback Derek Anderson 37 yards for the game's only touchdown with 9:45 remaining to give the Colts their first lead.
Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney forced the fumble with his team-leading eighth sack of the season.
That made it 10-6, and the Browns never threatened again.
"How about that one?" Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said with a shake of his head after he completed 15 of 21 passes for 125 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions for a passer rating of 46.8. "Our defense won the game for us. . . .
"Defensively, we made a play in the fourth quarter. That was enough to win the game. Obviously, everybody wants to get better, but offensively, we need to play much better next week."
Said Dungy, "That's what winning football's all about. You get it from different guys. The key is to come away with a win and we've done that in November."
The Colts managed just 215 yards total offense, 14 first downs and committed three turnovers. They also drove to the Browns 1 and turned it over on downs with less than two minutes remaining in the first half.
Defensively, the Colts limited Cleveland to 193 yards and forced two turnovers, each of which came in the fourth quarter.
Veteran kicker Phil Dawson gave the Browns a 3-0 lead with a 34-yard field goal early in the first quarter. Cornerback Eric Wright set up a 30-yard drive by recovering a fumble by Colts running back Joseph Addai on the game's first play from scrimmage.
The Colts tied it on the ensuing possession, with kicker Adam Vinatieri converting a 30-yard field goal with 1:58 remaining in the quarter.
In the second quarter, the Colts again fell behind by a field goal, and this time, they passed up a chance to tie it again. As a result, they trailed by three points entering halftime. The Browns took a 6-3 lead with a 25-yard field goal by Dawson with 7:35 remaining in the second quarter.
The Colts then drove from their 33 to the Browns 1, but defensive back Brodney Pool stopped a sneak by Manning, whose fumble was recovered by Colts tight end Dallas Clark in the end zone. Under NFL rules, a fumble in the final two minutes cannot be advanced by the offense unless the fumbling player recovers, so the touchdown was negated.
With a chance to extend the Browns' lead to six, Dawson missed a 34-yard field goal with 9:56 remaining in the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive, the Colts drove to the Browns 28 before Vinatieri missed a 46-yard attempt.
"That's what we anticipate from here on out," Manning said. "I don't care who we're playing, where we're playing. They're going to be four-quarter games. Hopefully, we can make the four or five plays that decide the games. That's what the games come down to."
Turning point: For the Colts, the game changed in the fourth quarter. Although they continued to struggle offensively, the defense forced two turnovers. Mathis returned the fumble for the game-winning touchdown, and Bethea intercepted a pass from reserve quarterback Ken Dorsey to end the Browns' final possession with less than a minute remaining.
Moment to remember: The football almost didn't look like a football to Mathis. "It actually looked like a pot of gold," the sixth-year defensive end said minutes after his 37-yard return with a fourth-quarter sack/fumble gave the Colts a 10-6 victory. To the Colts, it just looked like another big play from a pair of players who long have been making big, momentum-changing plays. "Whether the offense is moving or not, scoring or not, we have a job to do, too," Freeney said moments after his team-leading eighth-sack. "It happens we got a chance to ice the game. We did. Sometimes, they (the Colts' offense) are going to have to bail us out. That's why it's a team concept. You always want to ice the game. I think we went out there and did that."
Note: The game was yet another close, defensive struggle against Cleveland, and yet another Colts victory in the series. The Colts won their last meeting against the Browns, 13-6, in the second game of the 2005 regular season, and they won their last visit to Cleveland, 9-6, in the 2003 season opener. The 2003 opener was the last time Indianapolis was held without an offensive touchdown in the regular season. "They do a good job of making you be patient," Dungy said. "They played very well on defense today."
Quote to note: "Coach Dungy always says, 'The difference in the NFL between each team is like that much.' Whoever makes that key play at crunch time is pretty much going to win most of the time." --- Mathis