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In the 10th of a 10-part look at the Colts' 2009 AFC Championship season, examines the post-season following the 2009 regular season.


Colts Win Second AFC Championship in Four Seasons

INDIANAPOLIS – A memorable season came up a memory or two short.

The Colts, after rallying time and again throughout one of the most successful seasons in franchise history and after time and again making the clutch plays at the critical times, made the Super Bowl for a second time in four seasons following the 2009 season.

They played a memorable regular season.

They played a dominant post-season.

They then played a dramatic, gutsy, equally memorable game in Super Bowl XLIV, leading entering the third quarter before the NFC Champion New Orleans Saints rallied for a 31-17 victory at Sun Life Stadium in South Florida on February 7, 2010.

"It's disappointing because we set the mission to come out as Super Bowl champions and we fell one game short," Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. "We didn't finish the task. Not taking anything away from this season. We had a great season as a team. We fought adversity week-in and week-out. We had a great year."

The game was a disappointing end – "a bitter pill," Head Coach Jim Caldwell called it – to an otherwise historically successful season. The Colts in 2009:

• Set an NFL record for consecutive regular-season victories (23).

• Set an NFL record for regular-season victories in a decade (115).

• Won 12 or more regular-season games for a seventh consecutive season, an NFL record.

• Won the AFC South for a sixth time in seven seasons.

• Made the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season, the longest active streak in the NFL.

• Won their first 14 regular-season games, becoming the third team in NFL history to do so.

• Secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for a second time in five seasons.

• Won two post-season games by double digits.

• Had quarterback Peyton Manning win a record fourth Associated Press National Football League Most Valuable Player Award.

• Had seven players – Manning, tight end Dallas Clark, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, center Jeff Saturday, safety Antoine Bethea, defensive end Robert Mathis and defensive end Dwight Freeney – make the Pro Bowl.

"You look at our regular season, we did what we had set out to do," Caldwell said. "We met all of our goals in the regular season. We won our division, we ended up securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and this was just a caveat, we had the best record in football. We met all of our goals. Then we won

our first game in the playoffs and won the AFC Championship, which was another of our goals.

"We only missed one. You look at all the things that were accomplished during the course of the season, there were some steps involved, our guys played extremely well, played hard – just didn't win the last game of the season.

"You look at it and count 'em up, I think things went along extremely well, when you meet all of your goals but one."

And as the Colts left Miami in early February, although the disappointment stung, thoughts already were on creating a memorable future.

"We've just got to step up," Wayne said. "We've got to figure out a way to bounce back. That's the way the game goes. You win some, you lose some. I just feel that we have the caliber of team that will stick together. Hopefully we will keep it going."

A look at the three games in the post-season following the 2009 season:

The Colts were rested and as it turned out, they were ready.

That went for the fans, too.

With Manning throwing two second-quarter touchdown passes in a two-minute span, and with the defense stingy and opunistic throughout, the Colts pulled away from a tight game for a 20-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC Divisional Playoff game in front of 67,535 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"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 Colts, who rested some starters after two and a half quarters in Week 16 and for three quarters in the regular-season finale, talked throughout the week leading to the game about the quality of practices and preparation during the postseason bye week.

After the game, Colts players said being rested was a factor.

"We felt as good as we can possibly feel," Freeney said. "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."

The Colts (15-2) advanced to the AFC Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium to play the New York Jets, who beat the San Diego Chargers in the other AFC Divisional Playoff.

"It was a heck of a performance," said Caldwell, who celebrated his 55th birthday on the day of the game.

The Colts had lost Divisional Playoff games the previous four times they 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 Colts took the opening kickoff and drove 54 yards on 10 plays, using 4:16 to take a 3-0 lead when former Ravens kicker Matt Stover converted a 44-yard field goal with 10:44 remaining. On the ensuing series, the Ravens drove 87 yards on 15 plays, using 7:47 to tie the game with a 25-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.

Indianapolis narrowly missed a chance to push the lead to 10-0 on the series. On 3rd-and-goal, Bethea cut in front of a pass from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco at the Indianapolis 1. With open field in front of him, Bethea couldn't hang on, and Cundiff tied the game on the ensuing play.

Each team punted on its next two possessions, with the Colts taking possession on their 25 with 10 minutes remaining in the half. From there, Manning led them on their go-ahead drive.

The Colts drove 75 yards on 14 plays, using eight minutes and taking a 10-3 lead when Manning threw a 10-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Austin Collie in the left side of the end zone. The Colts converted six first downs on the drive, picking up a 3rd-and-6 and a 4th-and-4.

The Ravens failed to convert a first down on the ensuing possession, with Freeney pressuring Flacco into an incomplete pass on 2nd-and-6 from the Ravens 22 and Flacco throwing incomplete on third down.

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 on 3rd-and-goal from the 3.

The Colts maintained their lead in the second half with solid defense and timely turnovers, one of which came when the Colts were on offense and the other two when they were on defense.

One of the biggest plays in the second half came with 6:01 remaining in the third quarter, when Ravens safety Ed Reed intercepted Manning at the Baltimore 35. Reed returned it 38 yards to the Colts 27 before Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon poked the ball from Reed. Clark recovered.

The Colts forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, with linebacker Clint Session recovering a fumble at the Colts 20 and Bethea intercepting Flacco at the Colts 2 with 4:53 remaining.

Rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers intercepted Flacco at the Colts 14 with 1:07 remaining to end the Ravens' final possession.

"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 (what) the makeup of this team this year is."

Turning point: The game turned in a span of less than two minutes late in the first half, with Manning throwing touchdown passes to Collie and Wayne. First, Manning found Collie in the left side of the end zone on 1st-and-10 from the 10. That play came five plays after running back Joseph Addai caught a four-yard pass to convert 4th-and-4 from the Baltimore 35. The Ravens ran just 29 seconds from the clock on their ensuing possession, after which Manning drove the Colts 64 yards on eight plays. The final play was a three-yard touchdown pass to Wayne, who caught the ball just short of the end zone and scored while taking a hit from middle linebacker Ray Lewis to give the Colts a two-touchdown lead.

Moments to remember: For the Colts' defense, there was a moment to remember on pretty much every Ravens possession. 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 Sunday, rushed for 87 yards on 19 carries. Ravens running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns the previous week, rushed for 67 yards on 13 carries. The Colts also intercepted Flacco twice in the waning minutes. "We knew we had to wrap him up, get some hits on him, and not let him get any (more) yards," Session said. "And that's what we did tonight."

Note: The 67,535 fans Saturday 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. We'll need them again next week and we look forward to coming back and playing."

Quote to note: "He (Caldwell) was cheesing from ear-to-ear. I knew he felt good about the win. There was no greater gift we could have given him."--- Session

Once again, as they did throughout a dramatic, record-setting season, the Colts rallied. This time, they did it in the biggest game of the season to date.

So, once again, confetti fell.

Four years after the first time, and for a second time in what Owner and Chief Executive Officer Jim Irsay in a jubilant post-game locker room called "the Peyton Manning era," the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, January 24 won the AFC Championship Game in front of their home fans.

Colts 30, New York Jets 17.

And once again, the Colts were headed to the Super Bowl.

Indianapolis Colts . . . AFC Champions.

"It's very special," Manning said after the Colts (16-2) rallied from an 11-point second-quarter deficit to beat the Jets (11-8) in front of a raucous, stadium-record crowd of 67,650 at Lucas Oil Stadium. "It's great to win this championship here at home in front of the best fans in the world. We have a bunch of guys that have worked hard all season and been very humble. We were very humble this week.

"We just kept our mouth shut and went to work this week and came out and won the game."

The Colts, who set an NFL record during the regular season by rallying seven times to win in the fourth quarter – including a record five consecutive games as they pulled away from the AFC and their division in November – trailed 17-6 when Jets kicker Jay Feely kicked a 48-yard field goal with 2:11 remaining in the first half.

The Jets didn't score again. And the Colts did score again. And again. And again.

"The guys have always been a confident bunch," said Caldwell, who succeeded Tony Dungy as head coach in January and a little more than a year later became the fifth rookie head coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl. "They do a great job hanging in there. They don't panic and that's because of a lot of veteran leadership. We have great players, great coaches and certainly great fans.

"The 12th Man made a huge difference today."

Manning, sacked twice by the Jets' top-ranked defense in the first quarter, wasn't sacked again, and with the defense shutting out the Jets in the second half, he finished one of the most memorable performances of a memorable career having completed 26 of 39 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Manning, who during the season was named the Associated Press Most Valuable Player for a record fourth time, threw touchdown passes on three of four possessions after the Jets took their 11-point lead:

  • A 16-yard touchdown pass to Collie with 1:13 remaining in the second quarter. That made it 17-13, Jets.
  • A four-yard touchdown pass to Garcon with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter. That made it 20-17, Colts.
  • A 15-yard touchdown pass to Clark with 8:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. That made it 27-17, Colts.

Soon thereafter, the celebration began.

"What a night Peyton had, it was just incredible," Irsay said afterward. "It's a total team effort, but obviously Peyton had to get us going."

The Super Bowl appearance was the second since Irsay took over as sole owner in 1997. The Colts during the decade of the 2000s won more games than any franchise in a decade in NFL history – 115 – and they also set an NFL record by winning at least 12 games in seven consecutive seasons.

The Colts, who beat the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season, over the 2008 and 2009 seasons also set an NFL record by winning 23 consecutive regular-season games.

The victory in the title game was about more than a rally, and about more than Manning.

Garcon, a second-year veteran, caught 11 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, and Collie – a rookie –caught seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. On the drive that led to his touchdown reception late in the first half, Collie caught three passes for all 80 of the Colts' yards.

It also was about a Colts defense that was largely overlooked by many throughout the week, when many observers focused not only on the Jets' top-ranked defense, but also on their top-ranked running offense. The Jets rushed for 172.2 yards per game in the regular season and 170 in two playoff games.

In the title game, the Jets rushed for 86 yards on 29 carries.

"We're pros, and we know we're good, too," Mathis said.

As much as anything, Colts President Bill Polian said afterward, it was about the Colts winning their way.

"You bet it was," Polian said. "They are a very good football team. . . . This is the way we played all year. It's the way Jim designed it and it's the way we want to play. If you look back on our games with Baltimore when (Jets Head Coach) Rex (Ryan) was there (as defensive coordinator), it's going to seesaw back and forth. It's going to be a tight ball game. It's going to be field goals and ultimately somebody makes a play and you're able to win or lose the ballgame on big plays.

"That's the way it has been, and this game went the way we hoped it would, but it kind of went the way we thought it would."

The Colts, who took a 3-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter, failed to score on either of their first two first-quarter possessions, with the Jets sacking Manning once on each drive. The Colts had allowed a league-low 13 sacks this season.

The Colts came up with a key defensive stand early, holding the Jets without a touchdown after they drove to the Colts 22. Two runs lost five yards, and Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey stopped Jets wide receiver Brad Smith after a 1-yard gain.

Feely missed the ensuing 44-yard field-goal attempt.

The Colts' first score came on a 25-yard field goal by Stover, a play that capped an eight-play, 82-yard drive that ended with 14:56 remaining in the second quarter.

The Jets took their first lead on the next play from scrimmage, with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez throwing deep to veteran wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who was open well behind the defense, turning the play into an 80-yard touchdown.

The Colts drove 79 yards on 12 plays on their ensuing possession, cutting the Jets' lead to one – 7-6 with a 19-yard field goal by Stover. The Colts reached the Jets 1 on the drive, but Manning was stopped on a third-down sneak, forcing the field goal.

The Jets then extended their lead to eight points on the following drive, with Sanchez throwing his second touchdown pass in as many drives, this one a nine-yarder to tight end Dustin Keller. The play capped a seven-play, 77-yard drive that was keyed by a 45-yard pass from Smith to Jerricho Cotchery that gave the Jets a first down at the Colts 12.

A Colts turnover led to the Jets' final score of the game

Three plays after Keller's touchdown, Jets linebacker Calvin Pace forced a fumble by Addai that Jets safety Jim Leonhard recovered at the Colts 34.

Three plays later, a 48-yard field goal by Feely gave the Jets a 17-6 lead, but as the defense stopped the Jets time and again thereafter, the Colts scored on four of their next five possessions, including a drive midway through the fourth quarter that took 5:33 off the clock and finished with a 21-yard field goal by Stover.

The Colts led by 13 with 2:29 remaining, and the scoring was finished. Soon thereafter, fans celebrated, and confetti fell. Once again.

"We don't ever get comfortable with this feeling," Clark said. "We know we have one game left, but it's been a special journey so far."

Turning point: With the Jets scoring 17 second-quarter points, Indianapolis trailed 17-6 with 2:11 remaining in the half. After an incomplete pass to Clark, Manning threw an 18-yard pass to Collie, then threw a perfect pass down the middle of the field to Collie for a 46-yard gain to the Jets 16. Manning's touchdown pass to Collie on the ensuing play made it 17-13, Colts, and gave Indianapolis momentum it never relinquished. "From that point on, we really had a good beat on things," Manning said.

Moment to remember: For the Colts, it came during and after halftime, when they controlled momentum and pulled away in front of an ecstatic, sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts shut out the Jets in the half and scored on three of the first four possessions to qualify for a second Super Bowl in four seasons. "(We) came in at halftime and didn't make many adjustments, just a couple things here and there," Wayne said. "We felt like the first half was self-inflicted. We gave up a couple of sacks, scored some field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone. Coach Caldwell got up and spoke in front of the team and said this is going to be our half. Whenever that guy speaks, it speaks volumes. Everybody is listening, and everybody just wants to go out and put even more effort into it. We went out, the defense did a great job of shutting them down and getting us the ball and giving us more opportunities to make something happen. Once we were able to get up, our defense was able to feed off that fire and close the game for us."

Note: Edgerrin James, the Colts' all-time leading rusher who played with the team from 1999-2005, served as honorary captain. He was present for the pre-game coin toss and also presented the Lamar Hunt AFC Championship Trophy to Irsay after the game. "It was great to have him with us," Caldwell said. "He is one of those guys that epitomizes what our organization is all about, what our franchise is all about. He was beloved, still is, and is a real true professional that took care of his body and led our team in a very positive way. Not only was he great in the locker room, but also great on the field as well. To have him around was a lot of fun."

Quote to note: "We definitely had faith. I guess unfortunately or fortunately we have been in that situation all season. We have seven comeback victories. I think guys were a little rattled at first, but I think we remained calm and we did what we needed to do in the second half."--- Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett

The stage was set and the situation was very, very familiar.

But on the NFL's biggest stage, after coming from behind to win an NFL-record seven times in the fourth quarter during a memorable, regular season, the Colts for once didn't rally.

Tracy Porter, a cornerback from Indiana University, returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown with 3:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, all-but clinching a 31-17 come-from-behind victory for the New Orleans Saints (16-3) over the Colts (16-3) in Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium.

"Anytime you lose the last game of the season, it's difficult," Caldwell said. "Particularly on this stage, in this particular game, it's a bitter pill to swallow."

The loss ended one of the Colts' most successful seasons in franchise history in disappointing fashion. The Colts won their first 14 regular-season games, finished with the AFC's best record, and won the AFC South title for the sixth time in seven seasons.

They also stretched their NFL-record regular-season winning streak to 23 games, finishing the decade of the 2000s with more victories – 115 – than any team in any decade in NFL history.

"I felt like we played well this post-season," said Manning, who completed 31 of 45 passes for 333 yards and a touchdown with one interception. "We played well in our first playoff game, played well two weeks ago, and at times, we made some plays against the Saints.

"Obviously, we didn't make enough plays. We just didn't play well enough to win."

The Colts, after leading, 10-6, at halftime, fell behind 13-10 early in the second half, but rallied to lead, 17-16, entering the fourth quarter. That was when the Saints took control.

First, after Stover missed a 51-yard field goal, the Saints drove 59 yards on a nine-play possession, taking the lead with 5:42 remaining when Saints quarterback Drew Brees – the game's Most Valuable Player – threw a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey, a play that made it 22-17.

A two-point conversion, initially ruled incomplete, was reversed to push the lead to 24-17.

Manning drove the Colts 39 yards on the next possession, but on 3rd-and-5 from the Saints 31, the Saints blitzed and Manning threw to wide receiver Reggie Wayne.

Porter intercepted and scored to push the lead to 14.

"We've been able to do a lot of things all season from behind and we just weren't able to capitalize," Clark said. "We weren't able to execute and you've got to give them credit for making plays."

After recovering an onside kick to start the second half, New Orleans moved 58 yards with a 16-yard screen pass from Brees to running back Pierre Thomas giving the Saints their first lead.

But the Colts on the ensuing series moved 76 yards, with Addai's four-yard, tackle-breaking run giving them a 17-13 lead on a drive keyed by a crucial, accurate pass from Manning to Clark. On 3rd-and-4 from the Saints 47, Manning rolled right and threw a 27-yard pass to Clark, who caught the pass with four defenders around him.

The drive covered 76 yards, using 10 plays, but the Saints pulled to within one on their ensuing series with a 47-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley, his third of the game.

The Colts, who trailed throughout much of the first half of their most recent Super Bowl appearance, started markedly differently against New Orleans, taking a 3-0 lead when Stover – at 42, the oldest player ever to play in the Super Bowl – converted a 38-yard field goal with 7:29 remaining in the first quarter.

Late in the quarter, the Colts put together one of the most impressive drives in Super Bowl history, with Manning capping a 96-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Garcon.

The Saints dominated the second quarter, but despite holding the Colts to six plays and 15 yards, New Orleans managed just two field goals in the period. New Orleans drove 60 yards on 11 plays on their first possession of the period, cutting Indianapolis' lead to seven – 10-3 – with 46-yard field goal by Hartley with 9:34 remaining in the half.

New Orleans used 10 plays to drive to the Colts 1 late in the half, but after Hayden stopped Saints running back Mike Bell for a slight loss on third down, Saints Head Coach Sean Payton opted to go for the touchdown on fourth down. The Saints tried Thomas to the right side, but Brackett, defensive tackle Eric Foster and Session combined to stop him for no gain with 1:49 remaining.

Three Colts running plays netted nine yards, and after a punt, the Saints drove 26 yards on five plays to set up Hartley's second field goal.

This one was a 44-yarder that was good as time ran out in the first half, putting the Saints in position for a second-half rally and a dramatic fourth quarter.

"This is a tough feeling," Session said. "We let the city down. We let ourselves down. We let the staff down. They're not playing. We're out there playing. I don't know, man. It's tough. It's a tough loss."

Turning point: The Saints took the lead early in the third quarter after an emotional, momentum-changing swing to start the second half. The Saints, trailing 10-6 at halftime, recovered an onside kick that bounced off the hands and helmet of Colts reserve wide receiver Hank Baskett. After an extended scramble, officials ruled that New Orleans had recovered. The Saints then drove efficiently for the go-ahead score.

Moment to remember: On their final drive of the first quarter, the Colts started from their 4-yard line, driving the length of the field on one of their most efficient drives of the season. They drove 96 yards, using just 4:36 before Manning passed 19 yards for a touchdown to Garcon on 3rd-and-6. Garcon got off the line quickly on the play and caught a pass on the run in the back of the end zone for a 10-0 Colts lead with 36 seconds remaining in the first quarter. The drive was the Colts' longest of the season. It also tied the record for longest drive in Super Bowl history.

Note: He was gallant. When it came time to discuss Freeney, that was one of the first words Caldwell used following the loss in Super Bowl XLIV. Freeney, who sustained an ankle injury in the AFC Championship Game and hadn't practiced since, started and played throughout much of Super Bowl XLIV. "Obviously, there was a little pain, but I was good enough two days ago that I knew I could go out there and contribute," Freeney said. "At halftime, it was really tough on me just stiffening up. For the most part, it was good enough." Freeney, who was the focal point of media attention throughout the week as he tried to rapidly rehab his ankle, got good pressure at times, and had a tackle for loss, a hurry and a quarterback sack. The sack came in the first half, when he bull-rushed Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod.

Quote to note: "It's miserable. It's not the way you want to end your season. It's still a little early to comment to feel the true feeling, but it's not good."--- Clark

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