Colts Finish 2009 Season with NFL's Best Regular-Season Record
INDIANAPOLIS – Throughout the decade of the 2000s, the Colts made history.
Fitting, then, that with the decade waning they made some more.
After negotiating the first three months of the regular season unbeaten for the second time in five years – the first time in NFL history a team had started 12-0 twice in so short a span – the Colts spent the early part of December 2009 making significant entries into the NFL record book.
They did so in the same fashion in which they won most of the season, making critical, clutch plays late in games. The Colts during 2009 weren't a team with a slew of one-sided victories; their season instead was defined by "the ability to close," as Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell often said.
In December of 2009, they first closed their way into the postseason.
Then they closed their way into history.
First, the Colts beat the Denver Broncos, 28-16, a game they dominated early before Denver rallied. When the Colts clinched that victory late in the fourth quarter, they also:
• Clinched a first-round playoff bye.
• Clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
• Set an NFL record for consecutive regular-season victories with 22.
• Set an NFL record for victories in a decade with 114.
"I'm a part of history right now, so it feels real good," Colts linebacker Clint Session said afterward. "It's something we can tell our kids and grandkids that we did something no one else had done.
"It's definitely a great accomplishment."
It was the third time in five seasons Indianapolis clinched a first-round bye, and the second time in five seasons they clinched home-field. The following week, they traveled to Jacksonville for a Thursday night road game against their longtime AFC South rival.
In front of a sold-out crowd and a nationally-televised NFL Network audience, and playing on three days rest, the Colts rallied five times to win a back-and-forth game, 35-31, to extend the regular-season winning streak to 23 games, and to become the third team in NFL history to start the season 14-0.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins went unbeaten in a 14-game regular season, and the New England Patriots finished 16-0 in 2007.
The Colts, who set a franchise record for the best start, rallied to win in the fourth quarter for a seventh time of the season. That was an NFL record, too.
By season's end, the Colts had finished with the best record in the NFL for a second time in five seasons, and with that success came individual honors.
Quarterback Peyton Manning, the Associated Press Most Valuable Player in 2003, 2004 and 2008, won the award for a record fourth time, and was named to the Pro Bowl for a 10th time. Defensive end Dwight Freeney made a fifth Pro Bowl, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and center Jeff Saturday each made a fourth Pro Bowl and defensive end Robert Mathis and safety Antoine Bethea each were named to the game for a second time.
Tight end Dallas Clark, after several seasons as one of the NFL's elite tight ends, was named to the game for the first time, making it as a starter and also being named First-Team Associated Press All-Pro, which was an honor Freeney and Manning also attained.
But the Colts had had individual honors before, just as they had won a Super Bowl four seasons before. As they spent the last weeks of December on preparing for the postseason, there was little question about the focus as the team moved forward.
"It has been a good year so far, and now you're at the most imant part," Caldwell said. "This is the time that all those things go out the window if you don't finish it right."
A look at the four games in the fourth quarter of the 2009 season:
Game 13: INDIANAPOLIS 28, DENVER BRONCOS 16
Finally, the Colts stood alone.
That was true not only of the NFL record book – twice – but it also was officially true of the 2009 AFC regular season.
With Manning passing for four touchdowns, Clark catching three and the defense playing big throughout, the Colts stayed unbeaten, moved into history and clinched the AFC's No.1 seed with a 28-16 victory over the Denver Broncos in Game 13 of the 2009 season in front of 67,248 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts not only secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with three games remaining with the victory, they set two significant NFL records:
• Consecutive regular-season victories. The Colts' streak after the Broncos game was at 22. They had been tied with the 2006-08 New England Patriots at 21.
• Victories in a decade. They had 114 in the decade after the Broncos game. They had been tied with the 1990s San Francisco 49ers at 113.
"That's a lot," Manning said. "I've always learned never to take winning for granted, but when you think about how many we have won in 10 years, you do kind of think about it and it does kind of get you. That's a bunch. You sure do appreciate all the hard work that's gone into those wins."
Manning completed 20 of 42 passes for 220 yards and four touchdowns with three interceptions against Denver, and his 1-yard touchdown pass to Clark with 2:25 remaining secured the victory after a second-half Denver rally.
The Colts moved to 13-0 for a second time in franchise history. Only five other teams had started 13-0, with the Colts also accomplishing the feat in 2005.
"We've just got to take it game-by-game," Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay said afterward. "We'd love to get to 16-0, but that's not the focus."
And while an unbeaten season was a topic afterward, Caldwell said it wasn't an issue that had been decided yet.
"Right now, we are really just going to try to celebrate and enjoy this moment," Caldwell said. "I'll get to that business at some point. We'll talk about it here in the next 24 hours or so and make a determination on how we approach that."
Against Denver, the Colts used one of their most dominant starts of the season to take a 21-0 lead the Broncos never could overcome. The Colts were not only efficient offensively early, they were clutch defensively.
The Colts on the opening drive used 13 plays to drive 80 yards, with Manning throwing five yards to rookie wide receiver Austin Collie for a 7-0 lead with 9:06 remaining. Manning completed 8 of 10 passes for 76 yards on the drive.
After forcing a punt on the ensuing possession, the Colts drove 56 yards on seven plays, with Manning finishing the drive with the first of two first-half touchdown passes to Clark – this one, a 10-yarder that Clark caught near the 2-yard line before stepping into the end zone.
The Colts pushed the lead to three touchdowns before the Broncos cut into it before halftime. With 7:58 remaining in the half, Manning capped an 11-play, 71-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Clark.
With quarterback Kyle Orton working effectively to wide receiver Brandon Marshall, the Broncos drove 80 yards on 12 plays, pulling to within 21-7 when Orton passed five yards to Marshall. Marshall caught 10 passes for 109 yards in the half, with Orton completing 16 of 18 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown.
Manning, who had a tipped pass intercepted in the first half, threw two more interceptions in a difficult third quarter for the Colts' offense. After a scoreless third quarter, Denver turned the second third-quarter interception into a five-play, 14-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard field goal by Matt Prater.
That made it 21-10, Colts, and with 9:44 remaining, Orton threw a second touchdown to Marshall – a 5-yarder that capped an 11-play, 68-yard drive. The Colts stopped a run by rookie running back Knowshon Moreno to maintain the lead at five.
The Colts then put together a memorable, game-clinching drive, but Caldwell said the victory was as much about the defense. Despite allowing Marshall 200 yards, and despite Orton passing for 277 yards and two touchdowns, the Colts forced a turnover and stopped the Broncos twice on 4th-and-1.
"They were able to stall us quite a bit in that second half," Caldwell said. "I'm not sure I've seen a better defensive effort than the one our guys put forth today. At the end, when we needed it and had to get that thing in the end zone, the offense came up with a 14-play drive. That was key.
"It's been a very unusual team from the onset – a very close-knit group of guys that understand how to fight in big games, particularly when things may not be going well for one side of the ball, or one phase. The way they stick together, the way they step up and play, is impressive.
"There are just so many guys who have done a tremendous job stepping in and filling the gap for one another."
Turning point: The Colts needed an efficient late-game drive, one that came after the Broncos – with Marshall catching an NFL-record 21 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns – cut a 21-0 first-half deficit to five, 21-16. After a five-yard touchdown pass from Orton to Marshall, the Colts clinched the victory with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 7:19 and ended when Manning threw a 1-yard touchdown to Clark off play action.
Moments to remember: Denver forced three Colts turnovers, but the Broncos could not turn any into touchdowns. "I'm not certain I've seen a better defensive effort than the one our guys put forth today," Caldwell said. Through that game, the Colts were the only team in the league to not allow a touchdown following a turnover in the season.
Note: With the victory, the Colts moved to 13-0 for the second time in five seasons. Only five teams in NFL history previously had started 13-0. The Colts started 13-0 in 2005, the last time before 2009 they had clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Quote to note: "Today was the most important game from the standpoint of this year's race – that's over. Today was the most important game if you want to talk about history, because it achieved two historic milestones. That's it. What more is there to do?"--- Bill Polian
Game 14: INDIANAPOLIS 35, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 31
The Colts' 14th game ended in the fashion of so many of the first 13.
The circumstances on the banks of the St. Johns River in Game 14 were dramatic. The Colts, again on history's cusp, trailed late, the score remained tight, and a big play or two decided the outcome.
Once again, the Colts made those plays.
Once again, they won.
And once again, they came from behind to do it.
Manning, who played a perfect first half for a second time in as many visits to Jacksonville, followed that half with yet another fourth-quarter rally, leading the Colts to their 14th consecutive victory to start the season – 35-31 over the Jacksonville Jaguars in front of 63,753 at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
"The guys have a great, great fighting spirit," Caldwell said after a game that featured 10 lead changes and in which neither team led by more than four points.
The Colts rallied five times from three-point deficits, the last time when Manning threw his fourth touchdown pass – this one a 65-yarder to Wayne on 3rd-and-5 from the Colts 35 with 5:23 remaining.
An interception by rookie cornerback Jacob Lacey secured the victory with :56 remaining.
"As long as you finish on top, it's a good way to win," Clark said after catching seven passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns. "It was what we expected. We knew we'd have to earn everything we got. They took us down to the wire."
The Colts, who remained one of two unbeaten teams in the NFL along with New Orleans, the week before clinched the AFC's No. 1 seed. The Colts, as Caldwell indicated would be the case throughout the week, played all healthy starters against Jacksonville, with Mathis (quad), Freeney (abdomen) and offensive tackle Charlie Johnson (foot) – all of whom missed practice during the week – playing.
Mathis and Freeney each played mainly on third downs early, but played extensively late.
"We just kind of look at this thing one week at a time," Caldwell said.
As he was the previous December in Jacksonville, Manning – 23 of 30, 308 yards, four touchdowns, one interception – was perfect in the first half, a half in which each offense moved efficiently.
With Manning completing 12 of 12 first-half passes, the Colts scored three first-half touchdowns – two on passes by Manning – en route to a 21-17 halftime lead, with the first score coming on a 50-yard field goal by Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee.
The Colts then moved 80 yards in 14 plays, with Manning throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass to Clark early in the second quarter. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard then moved the Jaguars 61 yards on 11 plays, finishing the drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
That made it 10-7, Jaguars, but running back Chad Simpson returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown that gave Indianapolis the lead again.
Jones-Drew's three-yard touchdown run ended the Jaguars' next drive, but Manning threw his second touchdown just before the end of the half for a 21-17 Colts lead.
The back and forth continued in the third quarter.
After a pass from Manning went off the hands of Clark and was intercepted by Jaguars linebacker Daryl Smith, Garrard threw 16 yards to wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker. Clark caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from Manning on the ensuing series, bouncing off a tackle by Jacksonville safety Reggie Nelson and running the final 15 yards into the end zone.
The Jaguars took the lead again on the ensuing possession, with wide receiver Mike Thomas catching a 13-yard touchdown pass in the middle of the end zone from Garrard after a nine-play, 46-yard drive.
The Colts punted on their ensuing two possessions, but forced a Jaguars punt with 6:05 remaining, setting up Manning's touchdown pass to Wayne.
The Colts' defense, which allowed 345 yards and 25 first downs for the game but held Jacksonville scoreless in the fourth quarter, stopped the ensuing drive when defensive tackle Eric Foster recorded his second sack of the game to force a punt.
After the Jaguars forced a three-and-out, Garrard drove to the Jaguars to the Colts 33, but on 3rd-and-10 from there, he threw high to Thomas. Lacey caught the ball and after a short returned fell on the ground, securing the victory.
Turning point: The Jaguars' offense moved efficiently through three quarters, but Indianapolis' defense stiffened on two late drives. Trailing 31-28, Indianapolis was unable to move offensively, giving the Jaguars the ball. But the Colts defense forced another punt that led to Manning's 65-yard touchdown pass to Wayne. More than five minutes remained and the teams exchanged punts to give Jacksonville a final opportunity. At the Colts 33, Garrard passed to Thomas. The pass sailed and Lacey's third interception of the season secured the victory. "At the beginning of the game they were running the ball on us, pounding it on us and getting some open lanes in the passing game," Lacey said. "But we never gave up or lost our focus or slouched at any point. When we had our backs against the wall, we needed to step up, and we did that."
Moment to remember: In a game that featured 10 lead changes, there were many, but for the Colts, a particularly memorable moment came in the second quarter. That was when Simpson returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. It was the first Colts kickoff return for a touchdown since 2004.
Note: With 308 passing yards against Jacksonville, Manning registered a 10th 4,000-plus-yard passing season, extending his NFL record. The Colts' game-winning, fourth-quarter drive was their 43rd in Manning's career and their seventh of the 2009 season.
Quote to note: "We never gave up. We never lost focus. When we had our back against the wall and we needed to step up, we were able to do that. It's a great feeling, not only to keep the undefeated record going, but to get a win."--- Lacey
Game 15: NEW YORK JETS 29, INDIANAPOLIS 15
The Colts had a plan, and they were sticking to it.
So, when Manning left late in the third quarter of what became not only the Colts' first loss of the 2009 season, but their first regular-season loss in 14 months and 23 regular-season games, there was no anger, no surprise, and really, little reaction.
The Colts, after leading throughout the first half, removed Manning and assorted other starters with 5:36 remaining in the third quarter, and the New York Jets outscored the Colts by 19 points thereafter to win, 29-15, in front of 67,222 at Lucas Oil Stadium in the 15th game of the season.
"We felt like this was kind of an organizational philosophy that we stuck with," said Manning, who led the Colts to a go-ahead touchdown on his final series, the only series he played in the second half.
"We still had a chance to win the game. We were disappointed that we didn't."
The Colts (14-1), who entered the game with a franchise- and NFL-record 23 game regular-season winning streak, lost in the regular season for the first time since the previous October. They became the third team in NFL history to win their first 14 regular-season games, joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 2007 New England Patriots.
Those two teams remain the only teams in NFL history to go unbeaten through a regular season, but while the Colts chances at such a season ended against New York, Caldwell said what he and Bill Polian said often in previous weeks:
That a 16-0 regular season wasn't the goal before the season.
And that stance didn't change as the Colts approached the possibility.
"The perfect season's never been one of our goals," said Caldwell, who lost for the first time in his head-coaching tenure. "It never has been anything we've focused in on, and never been anything we've really talked about.
"Obviously, we were close in this situation, but I think you still have to look at your objective. It's how you want to be able to function in the most important part of our season. That's our objective."
Caldwell said that part of the season is the postseason, which for the Colts would begin January 16-17 with an AFC Divisional Playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
With the Colts leading 9-3 at halftime, Manning said Caldwell made it relatively clear Manning likely would play one second-half series. The hope, Manning said, was to push the six-point lead to a two-score advantage, but after Jets kick returner Brad Smith returned the second-half kickoff 106 yards, the Jets led, 10-9.
The Colts re-took the lead with a nine-play, 81-yard drive. Rookie running back Donald Brown ran up the middle, broke two tackles, and scored on a 1-yard run to give Indianapolis the lead.
A run by Brown on the two-point attempt failed.
The Colts held the Jets on the ensuing series, after which Manning, Wayne and Clark did not return.
"The guys who have been here, we follow orders. Our orders were to go and win the game. Our orders were not to give up a fumble for a touchdown and not to give up a kick return. I don't think we followed the blueprint for winning this game with some mistakes on our part in all phases," said Manning, who completed 14 of 21 passes for 192 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Said Wayne, "We really didn't talk about (the unbeaten record). Guys want to win, whether there is a streak on the line or not. We fell short today, but now we can focus on getting some guys healthy and getting ready for the playoffs."
After Manning left the game, the teams exchanged punts. On 1st-and-10 from the Colts 20, Jets linebacker Calvin Pace sacked Colts backup quarterback Curtis Painter, forcing a fumble that defensive end Marques Douglas recovered at the Colts 1.
Douglas then crawled into the end zone for a lead New York never relinquished.
A 43-yard field goal by Jay Feely pushed the New York lead to six, 21-15, with 13:23 remaining, after which Jets running back Thomas Jones' 1-yard run and a two-point conversion made it 29-15 with 5:38 remaining.
"You never want to lose, especially playing later in the year, but we understand what our goal is and that's being healthy in the playoffs," Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said.
The Colts, after producing a first down on their first drive, put together a go-ahead touchdown drive on their second possession, with running back Joseph Addai finishing a 54-yard, seven-play drive with a 21-yard touchdown run. On the play, Addai took a quick handoff from Manning and ran through a huge hole, running over two tacklers at the goal line for his 10th rushing touchdown of the season.
The Colts' defense continued to limit the Jets' offensively much of the first half, while the Colts offense took advantage of one of several chances to extend the lead. Defensively, the Colts held the Jets to seven first downs in the first half.
The Colts pushed the lead to 9-0 with a 22-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, and had a chance to extend the lead late in the second quarter, but a long pass by Manning skimmed the fingers of a wide-open Clark, forcing an Indianapolis punt.
The Jets drove for their lone score of the half on the ensuing possession, with Feely capping an 11-play, 63-yard drive with a 35-yard field goal to make it 9-3, Colts, with 1:44 remaining in the half.
"Every time you go out there and compete, you want to go out there and get a win," Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. "You want to make history, but Coach Caldwell made a decision and we rolled with that. He's been leading us all year and he has been a great head coach."
Turning point: The Colts led 15-10 with 1:38 remaining in the third quarter and faced 1st-and-10 from their 20. Painter was hit by Pace and fumbled, with Douglas recovering for a touchdown that gave the Jets a 16-15 lead. A two-point conversion pass from quarterback Mark Sanchez to tight end Dustin Keller made it 18-15, Jets. The Jets then scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to pull away.
Moment to remember: After managing 115 first-half yards, the Jets took their first lead on the first play of the third quarter when Smith took the second-half kickoff six yards deep in his end zone and scored down the right sideline. "That was something we certainly should not have let happen," Caldwell said.
Note: This marked the final regular-season home game for the club in what was a memorable decade. The Colts produced winning home records in nine of 10 seasons in the RCA Dome and Lucas Oil Stadium, with Indianapolis becoming one of the league's most challenging venues for visiting teams. The outcome ended a 13-game home winning streak.
Quote to note: "The most important thing for us is obviously to make sure we're operating on all cylinders come the playoffs. That's key. That's important."--- Caldwell
Game 16: BUFFALO BILLS 30, INDIANAPOLIS 7
There was a lot of slipping and sliding.
And by the time the regular-season finale ended, by the time the Colts lost to the Buffalo Bills, 30-7, in front of 69,848 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., in a Game 16 played in frigid, blizzard-like conditions, the focus was on the future.
The regular season was over.
It was time to look ahead to the postseason.
"It's been one of those years the team has played so well, overcoming a lot of obstacles," Caldwell said after a regular season in which the Colts not only finished with the NFL's best record, but also tied a franchise record for regular-season victories.
"The players and the coaching staff have really done a tremendous job achieving something we set out to do in terms of our goals. We wanted to win the division. They did it in fine fashion without losing a game. We wanted to be able to claim home-field advantage in terms of the playoffs. We were able to do that, so the guys were able to measure up against challenging opponents."
The Colts (14-2), after winning their first 14 regular-season games to extend their NFL regular-season record winning streak to 23, lost their final two games in situations in which many of their front-line players left the game early.
Manning completed 14 of 18 passes for 95 yards with an interception against Buffalo and finished the season having completed 379 of 553 passes for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns with 16 interceptions.
The Colts, who fell behind early when Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick passed 11 yards to running back Fred Jackson, tied it, 7-7, with a 12-play, 72-yard drive on the ensuing possession. Second-year running back Mike Hart's 1-yard run tied the game with 3:52 remaining in the first quarter.
"Obviously, that's not how you want to finish the regular season on that drive," Manning said, referring to a first drive that ended with an interception. "These are not games you want to lose. You try to get in the lead and see if you can hold it. It was good to get that drive to get into the end zone on that second series."
The Colts played the Bills with the following players inactive: Freeney, defensive tackle Antonio Johnson, Session, kicker Adam Vinatieri, right tackle Ryan Diem, cornerback Jerraud Powers, Simpson and tight end Gijon Robinson (knee).
Mathis, safety Melvin Bullitt, wide receiver Pierre Garcon, Addai and left tackle Charlie Johnson also did not play.
"Ultimately, what we wanted was a victory. . . . I think we're shifting gears now for the playoffs. It's tough," said Brackett. "Obviously, playing whatever the temperature and in the snow, with nothing on the line, that's always tough, but guys always want to go out and play their best football. Today, we didn't get that done.
"First things first, we get a (first-round postseason) bye, take care of our body and get back into the swing of things."
Said Manning, "Come this week, we're in playoff mode. We have to get ready for whoever we're going to play here in two weeks and get ready to play some good, playoff football."
Turning point: With most of the Colts' front-line players out of the game after the first period, the Bills pushed the lead to 24-7 at halftime, with Fitzpatrick throwing a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lee Evans with 5:02 remaining before halftime and a 41-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Terrell Owens two and a half minutes later. A 31-yard field goal by Rian Lindell made it 24-7, Bills, with 14 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Moments to remember: Clark caught seven first-quarter passes for 52 yards to become the second tight end in NFL history to catch 100 or more passes in a season. He finished the season with 100 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. Also, Wayne caught five first-quarter passes for 21 yards. He left after the first quarter, having finished the regular season with 100 receptions for 1,264 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was Wayne's second career 100-reception season.
Note: This marked the second consecutive decade the Colts christened in Buffalo. The final game of the 1999 season was played in January, 2000. The Colts marked a second straight decade by facing the Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Quote to note: "We are right where we want to be. I think if anybody would have said (in the beginning of the season) come January 4 this would be your station in life in terms of your record for the team, we'd all feel pretty good about that."–- Caldwell