INDIANAPOLIS –Amid the disappointment of a loss at New England in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning attempted to provide perspective for the 2004 season.
"I thought we had some great wins," Manning said about a Colts team that finished the regular season at 12-4, easily capturing the AFC South title. "We really did (and) made some crucial plays at some crucial times and really gave ourselves an excellent opportunity to get here.
"But when we got here," Manning said in the aftermath of the Colts' 20-3 loss to the Patriots, "we just didn't play like we wanted to play and so (we) came up short. That is how (the season) will probably be defined."
Which seems unfair in light of the impressive resume compiled by the 2004 Colts.
It all began with Manning, who won his second consecutive Most Valuable Player Award as he set a league passer rating record of 121.1 and broke Dan Marino's mark of 48 touchdown passes. It continued with Marvin Harrison, who caught 86 passes and led the Colts in receptions for the eighth time in his nine seasons. And it extended to running back Edgerrin James, who finished the year with 7,720 career rushing yards to become the club's all-time leader.
In so many ways, it was a year to remember and cherish in Indianapolis. Coach Tony Dungy realized as much. And he did his best to explain the team's emotions after the playoff loss.
"These are always tough days because they come unexpectedly," Dungy said. "Twelve teams go into the playoffs and 11 of them are going to feel just like we feel, whether you go out in the championship round like we did last year or this round or the Wild Card round like we did two years ago. They all feel the same. It's disappointing because you put so much work into it. ... And then when you don't win the ballgame, there's a little bit of an empty feeling.
"We'll be able to, in another week or so, look at the season in total and realize that we did have a fine year. We did a lot of things we set out to do. We didn't accomplish our ultimate goal of going to the Super Bowl and winning it. That's what we're going to strive for."
In 2004, losses at New England served as bookends for the Colts' campaign. In the season opener, Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal with 19 seconds left, and the Patriots prevailed, 27-24. Indianapolis committed three turnovers inside the Patriots' 20-yard line.
But that is when the Colts ratcheted up their resilience in various ways.
The next week, they ran off 28 second-half points to defeat Tennessee, 31-17. Then they threw passes on their first 22 plays and totaled 35 first-half points en route to a 45-31 win over Green Bay.
One week later, a touchdown with 3:33 left resulted in a 24-17 victory over Jacksonville. And then they cruised to a 35-14 triumph over Oakland for their fourth straight win.
"Well," Dungy said after studying videotape of the Oakland game, "it's certainly nice to be on a four-game winning streak and still be able to make some of the corrections we need to make, and make them while you're winning. Yesterday was a good example of that. I thought we had a lot of effort and a lot of energy and made some things happen. It wasn't a perfect game, but we did a lot of good things, especially on defense."
Then came a pair of Indy glitches. Josh Scobee's 53-yard field goal in the final minute pushed Jacksonville past the Colts, 27-24. And the Kansas City Chiefs, with former Indiana University quarterback Trent Green, amassed 590 total yards and defeated the Colts, 45-35.
"As I said yesterday after the game," Dungy noted at his day-after news conference, "there's not a lot of positives to take out after a loss. And looking at the video today was tough.
"All in all," Dungy continued, "I think we'll bounce back. The big thing that we have to fight right now is the tendency to panic, and I don't believe we will do that."
Panic? There was none. Bounce back? The Colts displayed plenty.
Indianapolis stormed back with eight consecutive victories. A couple of games were close calls, like a three-point win over Minnesota to start the streak and a three-pointer over San Diego in overtime to complete it. In between those games, however, the Colts outscored their six opponents by a 225-81 total.
At 12-3, the Colts faced a dilemma heading into the last regular-season game at Denver. They had secured the division title and the best playoff seeding they could (third). Do they try to rest their front-line players for the postseason, or play them the entire game against a Broncos team they could face again in the playoffs?
"We'll play our first group and we'll see how it goes," Dungy said. "There are a lot of factors involved in how much they'll play or how long. ... There are a lot of things that we want to do in terms of keeping that momentum and continuing to be sharp."
Dungy wound up playing some regulars more than others. Most notably, Manning departed the game after three plays, turning the offense over to Jim Sorgi, who completed 16-of-25 passes for 168 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, Denver won, 33-14, as Jake Plummer passed for 246 yards and two scores.
One week later, in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, the Colts got a rematch with the Broncos at the RCA Dome. Any concerns the loss at Denver would dampen the club's momentum disappeared quickly. The Colts bolted to a 35-3 halftime lead and went on to set a club postseason record for points in their 49-24 victory.
Colts receiver Reggie Wayne caught 10 passes for 221 and two scores, grabbing the NFL's attention.
"It was a heck of a game," said Manning, who passed for 458 yards and four touchdowns. "Reggie has the appreciation and respect from me and this team, and hopefully everybody around the league saw today just how great he really is."
Next came the rematch against the Patriots. The Colts lost three turnovers and rushed for only 46 yards. Playing in a cold and snowy Gillette Stadium, the Patriots ran for 210 yards and controlled the ball for nearly 38 minutes. It was the Colts' second straight playoff loss to New England after also dropping regular-season games to the Patriots in both 2003 and 2004.
"Obviously, we've lost 10 games in two years and four of them have been to New England, so almost half of our losses have been to them," Dungy said in his 2004 season summation. "I don't think we can get consumed by feeling we have to do anything special. We just have to continue to grow and get better, and eventually we'll get to the point where we beat those guys.
"We have to do that but still be able to compete in our division and win that and be able to play well in the playoffs wherever it is against whoever. So, I think we go away feeling disappointed, certainly, but feeling good about the direction we're going and feeling good about the guys we have on our team."
RECAPPING THE 2004 SEASON
Significant moment: Reggie Wayne's performance in the Wild Card round of the playoffs – 221 receiving yards in the Colts' dominant victory over Denver – still stands as an Indianapolis postseason record. Wayne had 10 catches (third in club playoff history), including 35- and 43-yard touchdowns.
Best seasonal performance (1): Peyton Manning had six 4 -TD games to tie Dan Marino (1984) for the NFL's best seasonal total. Manning set then the club seasonal records (since broken) for passing yards (4,557) and completion percentage (67.6). He threw more touchdown passes (49) than 26 other NFL teams scored total touchdowns. Manning had 13 consecutive games with multiple touchdown passes, tying the mark held by Don Meredith (1965-66), and he later was tied by Tom Brady (2010-11) and Aaron Rodgers (2011). Manning had 5 TDs vs. Green Bay 9/26, at Kansas City 10/31, vs. Houston 11/14 and at Detroit 11/25 to become the only QB with four 5 -TD games in one season. Manning had 4 TD passes in five consecutive games (5, at Kansas City; 4 vs. Minnesota; 5, vs. Houston; 4, at Chicago; 6 at Detroit) to set the NFL record in that category, breaking John Unitas' prior club mark of two consecutive games with 4 TD passes (4, 10/30/60 at Dallas; 4, 11/6/60 vs. Green Bay) and Marino's NFL record of four consecutive games (1984). Manning held a 19:1 touchdown:interception ratio in four games against the NFC North.
Best seasonal performance (2): Peyton Manning's record-breaking year captured the brightest spotlight, but defensive end Dwight Freeney produced an impressive season, too. With 16 sacks, Freeney set a team seasonal record and led the NFL. He became the club's first NFL leader in sacks.
Best seasonal performance (3): Starting in 2004 and going through 2007, Indianapolis scored more touchdowns than it had punts (2004: 66 touchdowns, 54 punts; 2005: 53 touchdowns, 52 punts; 2006: 50 touchdowns, 48 punts; 2007: 54 touchdowns, 52 punts). It has been achieved five times in franchise history (1958: 50 touchdowns, 49 punts).
Stokley an unsung hero: Marvin Harrison and Wayne were the Colts' marquee wide receivers, but Brandon Stokley's performance was strong and consistent as well. The Colts became the first NFL team with three receivers catching 10-plus touchdown passes. Harrison had 15, Wayne 12 and Stokley 10. Stokley totaled 68 receptions for 1,077 yards.
Turning point: When Tom Brady completed a five-yard scoring pass to David Givens in the third quarter of the Colts-Patriots playoff game, New England took a 13-3 lead. That advantage enabled the Patriots to concentrate on their running attack and put the game away. New England, which rushed for 210 yard on the day, controlled the ball for 21 of the final 30 minutes.
Memorable quote: Manning made his 100th NFL career start when the Colts defeated Jacksonville, 24-17, on October 3. Said Manning, who was 28: "I feel like an old man now."
Craig Kelley contributed to this story.