INDIANAPOLIS –After a 7-6 start in 2000, the Colts gathered momentum and produced a three-game winning streak to end the regular season.
That burst of victories proved timely and important, lifting the Colts into the playoffs as a Wild Card entrant. It was not the perfect scenario for a team that went 13-3 the previous year, but the late-season push still produced a sense of pride in the team's locker room.
"It has been a difficult season, but I saw this in us," linebacker Cornelius Bennett said as the Colts prepared to play Miami in the postseason. "I am no psychic, but I saw the potential. Our backs were against the wall. If you put anybody against the wall and they do not come out fighting, they are chickens. There are not any chickens on this football team."
The Colts lost their playoff game to the Dolphins, 23-17 in overtime, but left behind a number of team and individual achievements for the year.
Their 10-6 record, coupled with 1999's sparkling regular season, marked the franchise's first consecutive campaigns with double-digit victories since 1976-77. The Colts earned back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 1995-96. The 2000 team also set a franchise record by scoring 429 points, breaking the mark of 428 set in 1964.
Making that happen, in large part, was quarterback Peyton Manning, who led the NFL in passing yards (4,413) and completions (357) and tied for most touchdowns (33). Running back Edgerrin James rushed for a club-record and NFL-leading 1,709 yards. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison tied for the league lead with 102 catches.
Because of those talented individuals, and because of the surprising 13-3 finish in 1999, the Colts went into the 2000 season with high hopes and aspirations. Owner Jim Irsay, during a visit to the 2000 training camp, explained it with directness and honesty.
"You always go into a season feeling you should contend for the Super Bowl," he said. "There always is a tendency at this time of year to think you are better than you are. But this is the first time since 1976 we feel we are legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl. It is within our grasp and we want it."
Although the 2000 season fell short of the Super Bowl, the Colts would reach that goal following the 2006 season and again in 2009. The 2000 campaign set the stage for a decade of excellence in Indianapolis. It also demonstrated the Colts' resilience and resolve in the face of difficulty.
The Colts won three of their first four games and hit the season's midway point with a 6-2 record following a three-game winning streak. They scored 97 points during that three-game span. The offense was rolling and it appeared, too, the Indianapolis defense was improving.
Defense played a big role in a game eight victory over Detroit as the Colts won despite suffering two interceptions and three lost fumbles.
"The gods were smiling on us today because it is very difficult to win a game when you turn the ball over five times," Head Coach Jim Mora said after the 30-18 outcome against the Lions. "Let's give credit to our defense for going in some very difficult situations and stopping those guys."
The season's second half got off to a shaky start as the Colts dropped four of five games. The offense temporarily lost its scoring touch as the Colts averaged 20.4 points in that five-game span after scoring 30 or more in five of the first eight games.
A disappointing moment came on December 3 when the Colts fell behind, 20-0, at the New York Jets, fought back to make it 20-17 and then saw a rare fumbled exchange from center Jeff Saturday to Manning hurt the cause in a 27-17 loss. It was the third straight defeat for Indianapolis.
"We had a freak play on the snap," Manning said. "That won't happen again in five years."
"The ball got stuck in the turf as I was snapping it," Saturday said. "It just came out of my hand and just sort of rolled back there."
At 7-6, the Colts' playoff chances looked bleak. But the players stood their ground.
"We are not writing off (this season) because you never know what is going to happen," James vowed after the loss to New York.
Added Manning: "We have to find some way to overcome this."
And so they did.
The Colts defeated visiting Buffalo, 44-20, as the defense scored two touchdowns and totaled nine sacks. Indianapolis traveled to Miami and beat the Dolphins, 20-13, with a sound mix of passing (195 net yards), rushing (132 yards) and defense (272 yards yielded). The Colts completed the regular season and their late push into the playoffs with a 31-10 home victory over Minnesota as Manning passed for four touchdowns, including three to Harrison.
"Three weeks ago, we didn't feel real pleased about how things were going," Mora said. "Now we are ending the season on a high note with a feeling that we have battled back, gotten into the playoffs and given ourselves a chance to win some more games."
The Colts traveled to Miami and grabbed a 14-0 halftime lead in their Wild Card game. The Dolphins outscored Indianapolis 17-3 in the second half to force overtime. Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who connected on field goals of 32, 26 and 50 yards in regulation, missed from 49 in overtime. Lamar Smith, who rushed for 209 yards, boosted Miami to its victory with a 17-yard scoring run.
"That game," Mora said, "was kind of a good example of what our whole season was about. We played as hard as we can play. We battled hard the whole way, just like we have all year. We just weren't able to make some plays when we needed to."
RECAPPING THE 2000 SEASON
Significant moment: The Colts' defense rose to the occasion when it was needed most. Indianapolis yielded just 67 rushing yards in a 31-10 victory over Minnesota that completed a three-game, season-ending surge and wrapped up the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. "We came out and played some of the best defensive football that I have seen in a long time," Cornelius Bennett said.
Best seasonal performance: Take your pick: Peyton Manning topped the NFL in passing yards (4,413) and completions (357) and tied for most touchdowns (33). Edgerrin James rushed for a club-record and NFL-leading 1,709 yards. Marvin Harrison tied for first in the league with 102 catches. In 2000, the "Triplets" were in the early stages of taking the NFL by storm and positioning themselves among the league's all-time greats.
Unsung heroes, Part I: Linebacker Mike Peterson, in his second pro season, led the Colts with 160 tackles. That gave him 270 for his first two years. He quickly became a fan favorite, a media favorite and a player with plenty of star qualities.
Unsung heroes, Part II: Overlooked amid the gaudy numbers amassed by Manning, James and Harrison was the 2000 performance of the Colts' tight ends. Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard combined for 77 receptions and six touchdowns. After a rousing 43-14 victory over Jacksonville, in which the tight ends combined for seven catches, Manning said: "It was good for us to show people and show ourselves that we have other weapons on offense and we can spread the ball around. Other teams will see that and realize that if they do try to double-team Marvin (Harrison), then we can beat them with other guys."
Turning point: In Game 14, the Colts' defense soared with two scores and nine sacks in a 44-20 victory over the Bills. That blockbuster performance started the three-game winning streak that resulted in a playoff berth.
Memorable quote: Leave it to Bennett to provide a summation as the Colts made the playoffs not as one of the league's glamour teams but by battling and persevering to three season-ending victories. "We didn't show up in the first-class section," the linebacker said. "We were in the back, down in the cargo hold. We couldn't even get those little pretzel snacks way back there. But we got here."