INDIANAPOLIS –The Colts opened the 2005 season like a rocket leaving the launching pad.
Indianapolis reeled off victories in its first 13 games. Some were close, like seven-point home wins over Jacksonville and Cleveland early in the streak. Others not so much, like during a six-game stretch in October and early November when the Colts averaged 35.5 points and outscored opponents by a mean of 19.
The Colts' dominance was reflected in the fact they clinched a playoff berth in their 12th game, well before much of Indianapolis had even begun its Christmas shopping. One week later on December 11, still unbeaten with three games left, the Colts tied a bow on a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
It gave the team an upper hand in the form of options for resting and getting players healthy over the final three weeks of the regular season. It also made for exciting times in Indianapolis. The club and its fans harbored high hopes and aspirations as Head Coach Tony Dungy, who started 2005 with a 34-14 record in three Colts seasons, strove to lead Indianapolis into its first Super Bowl.
But that plan fell short.
An exciting, down-to-the-wire Divisional Playoff game in the RCA Dome left the Colts with a 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger saved his team in the fourth quarter when he tackled Nick Harper, holding the Colts cornerback to a 35-yard gain instead of a possible touchdown with a fumble return. The Colts advanced the ball to the Pittsburgh 28, but Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field goal with 17 seconds remaining.
Dungy, at his day-after news conference, summed up the mood and the attitude as his squad members headed into the off-season.
"I talked to the players today about differentiating between disappointment and discouragement. We have a lot of people disappointed today," Dungy said.
"We have to use the disappointment to fuel our fire for next year. And we have to look ahead and see what we can do a little better to get ourselves in position again and then take advantage of it."
That mission would be accomplished in 2006, when the Colts would heed Dungy's words and bring home the Super Bowl trophy. The 2005 season played a part in that, providing a number of teachable moments.
By the third week of their 13-0 start in 2005, the Colts were already producing new entries for the record books. Their first three opponents – Baltimore, Jacksonville and Cleveland – scored seven, three and six points respectively. Indianapolis became only the sixth NFL team in the post-World War II era to hold three straight season-opening foes in single digits.
Also, in the 13-6 victory over the Browns, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison set the league mark for a quarterback-receiver tandem with 9,568 passing yards between them.
"I think that is something you think about more so when you retire," Manning said. "It's a time for me to say how thankful I am to have a chance to play with Marvin, and just proud to call him a teammate."
In the fourth game, Tennessee broke the Colts' string of single-digit defensive efforts as Indianapolis won, 31-10. It left the Colts in the odd position of apologizing, in a fashion, for a strong effort and a three-touchdown victory.
"We were disappointed," Dungy said. "Our guys were very disappointed. They wanted to keep them out of the end zone, but that gives them something to work on. So that probably keeps me smiling."
As the Colts' march to a third successive AFC South title continued, so did their 2005 re-write on the list of milestones and records. Manning became the first quarterback to have eight 3,000-yard passing seasons to open an NFL career. Harrison extended his club record for 1,000-yard receiving years to seven in a row. Vanderjagt, who ranked as the most accurate kicker in NFL history, produced his eighth consecutive season of 100-plus points, a club record.
In the Colts' sixth game, a 45-28 victory over St. Louis, Manning connected with Harrison on a six-yard touchdown throw that gave them the NFL record for a most scoring passes between a quarterback and receiver (86). They surpassed Steve Young and Jerry Rice, and they created a moment that will not soon be forgotten in Indianapolis.
"I just kind of went over there to congratulate him and (Harrison) kind of gave the ball to me, and I sort of gave it back to him," Manning said, describing the celebratory scene after the historic touchdown pass. "He gave it to me and I said no. So we decided we're going to split it somehow."
The playoff-clinching game was a 35-3 rout of Tennessee. Edgerrin James rushed for 107 yards, lifting him above the 9,000-yard career mark in his 93rd game. Only Eric Dickerson and Jim Brown reached that milestone faster.
Said Dungy about his team: "They had that focus and wanted to win and get ourselves in the playoffs. We are very excited about that, accomplishing our first goal."
They accomplished their next goal seven days later in a 26-18 victory at Jacksonville, assuring themselves of a bye and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Manning was sharp, throwing for 324 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Colts also wrapped up the AFC South title for the third consecutive year, their first divisional three-peat since 1975-77.
"All in all, we're happy," Dungy said. "It was a big game for us to go down there and win in that environment. Jacksonville has a good team. I'm sure they'll be around in the playoffs and make some noise."
The Colts, perhaps suffering a letdown, lost at home to San Diego (26-17) in the 14th game. The club's front-line players were on the field and turned in some nice offensive numbers, but the Colts yielded the game's final 10 points. The defeat prevented the Colts from becoming only the second team in NFL history with a 14-0 start.
A few days later, Dungy left the team temporarily following the death of his 18-year-old son, James, in Florida. Assistant Head Coach Jim Caldwell led the Colts at Seattle in the 15th game. The Colts lost, 28-13, as a number of starters sat out.
Team members had Tony Dungy on their mind.
Colts President Bill Polian said players, coaches and everyone connected to the club sought "to honor (Dungy) by doing our best. And the fact that it did provide him three hours of solace is a good thing. Right now, that is the best thing we could hope for, and I know everyone feels that way."
Dungy returned to coach the final regular-season game at home against Arizona. A goal-line stand in the final seconds preserved a 17-13 victory for the Colts. The 14 wins were a club record and career-high for Dungy.
Afterward, the Colts awarded him the game ball.
"It was special," he said. "I didn't really think about it much during the game, but what it symbolized to me is what a close-knit group we have, what a tight family we have. I know these guys wanted to win the game for me and wanted to do it for a lot of reasons, but I think they wanted to win it for me and they came up with the effort to do it. It will be a reminder of how much I will be proud of these guys from here on out."
The Colts went into the playoff game against Pittsburgh rested and relatively healthy. However, as Dungy said afterward, the Steelers "played better than we did. They deserved to win." The Colts gained just 58 rushing yards and Manning was sacked five times.
"We never gave up," Dungy said. "That's a tribute to us. We played that way all year. I don't think we have major changes. We have to put ourselves back in this position next year, which is not easy. It's tough to make the playoffs year after year, but that is the mentality that we have to have."
RECAPPING THE 2005 SEASON
Significant moment: If there were lingering questions whether the Colts could produce electric defensive moments to go with their high-powered offense, they were dispelled by the fifth game. On October 9, the Colts had five sacks, five takeaways and a touchdown in a 28-3 victory at San Francisco. The Colts became only the second team in NFL history to win five season-starting games while holding each opponent to 10 or fewer points.
Best seasonal performance: Linebacker Cato June, in his third year in Indianapolis, turned in a marvelous season. The former sixth-round draft pick from Michigan became the first Colts linebacker to make the Pro Bowl since Duane Bickett in 1987. He led Indianapolis in interceptions with five, returning two for touchdowns, and recorded 109 tackles. His standout performance continued in the playoffs as he made seven tackles and intercepted a pass against the Steelers.
Unsung hero: Tight end Dallas Clark, in his third season, enjoyed a career-best outing as the Colts won at Cincinnati, 45-37, in the 10th game. Clark caught six passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Said Coach Tony Dungy: "Dallas hasn't had a lot of opportunities this year. He's really a good player. He's blocked well for us. He hustles. He plays hard, and he just hasn't had that role where he was going to be the featured guy in the passing game this year. ... The fact that he can do a lot of things really helps us, and he's capable of having those kinds of days when his number is called." Clark wound up the season with 37 receptions for 488 yards and four scores.
Statistical note: Manning played one series in the club's game at Seattle, and he did not throw at touchdown pass. That venue stands the only one in which Manning played in regular season action for the Colts and did not throw a touchdown pass. He threw for touchdowns in 35 of 36 venues while playing for Indianapolis.
Turning point: With a 13-0 start that they parlayed into an NFL-best 14-2 record, it is difficult to pick one turning point for the Colts. However, their season-opening victory at Baltimore could be cited as a tone-setter, especially defensively. The Indianapolis defense recorded four takeaways, three sacks and a touchdown in a 24-7 win. That defense, led by June and sack-masters Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, held the Colts' first five opponents to a total of 29 points. Baltimore averted being shutout in a home opener by scoring with 13 seconds left in the game.