INDIANAPOLIS –The Colts rode the momentum of their Super Bowl XLI championship into the 2007 regular season. Sixteen opponents targeted the reigning world champions and tried to stem the winning ways of Indianapolis. Only three succeeded.
The Colts' highlights were numerous:
– The Colts, 13-3, won the AFC South divisional championship for the fifth straight year and became the first NFL team in 76 years to open three successive seasons at 7-0.
– Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Joseph Addai carried the offense to its usual lofty heights. Manning produced his eighth 4,000-yard passing season to extend his NFL record. Wayne recorded his first season of 100-plus receptions. Addai rushed for 1,072 yards.
– The Colts' defense ranked third in the NFL for the club's best finish in that category since 1971.
– Tony Dungy, in his sixth season with the Colts, became the team's winningest coach with his 74th victory in a 31-7 outcome against Carolina on October 28.
Yet, for all the glorious moments, the 2007 season ended on a downbeat. The Colts went into the playoffs as the AFC's second seed and with a realistic goal: defending their world championship. But they fell short, losing 28-24 to San Diego in a Divisional Playoff game as they committed three turnovers and failed to capitalize on some solid scoring opportunities.
"A very disappointed group of guys," Dungy said, describing his team after the loss.
"It's tough sometimes to reflect back that you did have a good year, that you did do a lot of positive things, (that) you saw a lot of growth and a lot of improvement … because you had the disappointment of not winning that last game. And it's even probably a little more disappointing when you don't play your best or what you feel is your best."
But, as Dungy also noted, give credit to San Diego. The playoff game was hotly contested with six lead changes, and the Chargers scored the winning touchdown with 4:50 remaining. The Chargers lost some key players and had to get it done with backup quarterback Billy Volek, who played the entire fourth quarter. Volek completed three-of-four passes for 48 yards and scored on a one-yard run.
Yet the Colts had one final chance, getting possession at their own 32 with 1:30 left. Manning connected with Addai for a five-yard gain on first down. But, then, incomplete passes intended for Addai, Wayne and Dallas Clark eliminated hopes for the home team.
Dungy, in his season-ending news conference, explained how the pain of losing staggered his team but remarked that "in this game, you don't get do-overs, you don't get repeats and you don't get second chances."
Added Dungy: "We had to fight through some adversity at times this year and we had different people in and out of the lineup. But I thought we hung together as a team and we played very good football for the whole regular season, but unfortunately not well enough in the playoffs."
The 2007 season – the last one for the Colts in Indianapolis' RCA Dome – opened in grand fashion with a 41-10 victory over visiting New Orleans. The Colts transformed a 10-7 deficit into a 24-point lead with scores on five consecutive drives. Prior to the game, Indianapolis unveiled its Super Bowl XLI World Championship banner. It hung in the rafters alongside others that honored outstanding seasons, but the white color of the banner contrasted with the other ones that were blue. (The banners all were relocated to Lucas Oil Stadium, where they continue to hang.)
The Colts followed up with a 22-20 victory at Tennessee. Marvin Harrison caught six passes for 87 yards, but that would be the standout receiver's best day of the year. He struggled with a knee injury that kept him inactive for 11 games during the season.
Indianapolis then reeled off victories over Houston (30-24), Denver (38-20) and Tampa Bay (33-14). The win over the Buccaneers was a franchise-record 12th straight at home. Playing without six injured starters, the Colts rolled up 400 yards while yielding only 177, including just 17 on the ground.
Two more victories – over Jacksonville (29-7) and the Panthers – elevated Dungy to the top of the Colts' coaching list and set up his 7-0 team for a highly anticipated matchup against 8-0 New England.
"Driving in today," Dungy said on October 29, "I heard it's the first time that it's happened in NFL history, to have undefeated teams this late, and two high-profile teams. But it's still a regular-season game. What it will prove is who's the best team on November 4. But we've been through that where that doesn't guarantee you anything."
The Indianapolis winning streak ended with a 24-20 loss. Addai had a marvelous game, with 112 yards rushing and 114 receiving to become the first Colt to get 100-plus in both categories in the same game. However, Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes for the Patriots, who scored two touchdowns in the final 7:59.
Afterward, Dungy likened New England's consistent success and approach to Coach John Wooden's UCLA teams when they were "playing basketball really well."
"You have to do everything right," Dungy said about having a chance to beat the Patriots. "And they are so fundamentally sound, they force people into mistakes."
The Colts traveled to San Diego the next week and fell behind, 23-0. But they battled back, scoring 14 fourth-quarter points before Adam Vinatieri missed a 29-yard field goal attempt in the final two minutes. The final score: Chargers 23, Colts 21.
But then the Colts righted the ship. They surged to six consecutive victories, capping the new streak with a 38-15 romp over visiting Houston. Clark caught six passes, including two for touchdowns, pushing his season marks to 57 catches and 11 scores. Those numbers broke the franchise seasonal records for a tight end held by Pro Football Hall-of-Fame member John Mackey.
"It was really a good win for us," Dungy said. "It feels good to get to 13. We want to defend our home turf. That is always important for you. There were just a lot of positives today. But more than anything, I was just really impressed by the way our team came out and played and the level of precision we had."
In the regular season-ender, with their number two seed cemented and unable to get to number one, the Colts rested numerous starters for much of the game and fell to Tennessee, 16-10. After a bye week, they stumbled against San Diego in the loss that halted their season. The story line then switched to Dungy, who had indicated he would consider retirement after 2007.
"As far as my situation, I know a lot of people want to know," he said the day after the Chargers game. "As I said before the game, my wife and I will sit down and evaluate this week and talk about it, talk it through. We'll probably do a lot of praying about what we want to do."
But, then, Dungy provided a hint of his thinking when he was asked what might keep him located in the head coach's office at the team complex.
"There's a lot of things that would," he said. "Number one, working for (Colts owner) Jim (Irsay) and (team president) Bill (Polian), what we have here, the group of players that we have. I still enjoy it very much. I love coming to work. I'm not burned out at all, so all those things are really, really positive. And if there's any place you want to work, it's here."
Dungy would return for a seventh year with the Colts in 2008 and lead the team into its first season at Lucas Oil Stadium.
RECAPPING THE 2007 SEASON
Memorable moment: For only the third time in franchise history, the Colts played on Thanksgiving Day and thumped the Falcons, 31-13, at Atlanta. Peyton Manning threw for 272 yards and three touchdowns and surpassed former Colts quarterback John Unitas for 10th place in NFL career passing yardage. Manning also moved into fifth place for career touchdowns.
Best seasonal performance, Part 1: Colts safety Bob Sanders recorded 132 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. He played the game the only way he knew how: with ferociousness and all-out hustle. The NFL noticed. He was named the league's top defensive player by the Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers.
Best seasonal performance, Part II: Center Jeff Saturday won acclaim, too, as the Colts' offense recorded another memorable year. The NFL Alumni named Saturday the Offensive Lineman of the Year. He also made All-Pro teams selected by the Associated Press, the Pro Football Writers and Sports Illustrated.
Significant moment: Reggie Wayne snared 12 passes in the Colts' final regular-season game, giving him 104 for the year, his first season with 100-plus. It provided further indisputable evidence that Wayne had developed into an elite, go-to receiver for Manning. There also would be 100-plus-catch seasons for Wayne in 2009 and 2010.