INDIANAPOLIS –After two trips to the Super Bowl and one World Championship in the previous four seasons, the Colts had similar aspirations entering Jim Caldwell's second season as head coach.
A variety of factors, not the least of which was an unusual rash of injuries, kept that goal out of reach.
All things considered, the 10-6 record, seventh AFC South title in eight years and ninth consecutive playoff berth were compelling evidence of this team's ability to overcome a mountain of adversity.
The Colts finished the season with 17 players on injured reserve. Key players including running back Joseph Addai (eight games), wide receivers Austin Collie (seven) and Anthony Gonzalez (14), tight end Dallas Clark (10), safeties Bob Sanders (15) and Melvin Bullitt (12), linebackers Gary Bracket (four) and Clint Session (11) and cornerbacks Jerraud Powers (six) and Kelvin Hayden (five) all missed extended stretches of the season.
"Probably unlike any other group that I've ever seen, obviously we had probably more adversity to deal with through the course of the season than most teams," Caldwell said. "They did it, I think, in grand fashion. They were able to stare it right in the eye. They didn't weep and complain. They didn't implode. They didn't point fingers. What they did is went to work and certainly did everything they possibly could to put us in position to win.
"Obviously the coaches did a tremendous job of getting young guys ready and things of that nature. That took some teamwork, took some cooperation between everybody involved. We're not satisfied with where we ended up, but I think the guys did a heck of a job."
Peyton Manning stood tall through it all, finishing with season-highs in pass attempts (679), completions (450, then an NFL record) and yards (4,700) and extended his streak of games started to 208, the longest career-opening streak in NFL history at any position and second-longest overall for a quarterback.
He established an NFL record with his 13th consecutive season with at least 25 touchdown passes (he had 33).
"Certainly this year is a different year," he said after the season concluded. "I truly appreciate the effort of a number of guys, some of the veteran players that played hurt all year, some guys that didn't let on how injured they are, how hurt they are, how much pain they played with.
"A number of guys, (Jeff) Saturday, Charlie Johnson, Reggie (Wayne), (Jacob) Tamme and then the guys like Dominic Rhodes, Blair White, Jacob Tamme, kind of new guys for this year's team. I truly appreciate their efforts and doing their job, giving our team a chance."
His favorite target, Wayne, had a career year with 111 receptions for 1,355 yards and six touchdowns, joining Manning and center Jeff Saturday as the offense's representatives in the Pro Bowl.
Bookends Robert Mathis (11 sacks) and Dwight Freeney (10) continued to anchor the defense and also earned Pro Bowl berths.
When Sanders was lost for the season in the first game, it set the tone but the Colts persevered, jumping out to a 6-3 start. But three straight losses put the postseason in jeopardy, leaving the Colts at 6-6 and facing must-wins in their final four games.
That is just what they did, however, knocking off the Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Titans in close games – the total margin of victory was 20 points – to extend their playoff streak. It was a ninth straight playoff berth, matching the NFL record set by Dallas.
RECAPPING THE 2010 SEASON
Most memorable game: Even with the momentum of their four-game win streak, the Colts knew their opening playoff matchup with the Jets would be a challenge. Though it would be played in Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts were facing a New York team with revenge on its mind for Indianapolis' 31-17 victory in the AFC Championship game the previous season.
The game turned out to be a defensive struggle as the Colts only reached the end zone once, on a 57-yard pass from Manning to Pierre Garcon in the second quarter to open the scoring. The Jets led 14-10 in the fourth quarter but Adam Vinatieri's 32-yard field goal with 4:37 remaining cut the deficit to one. Manning then marched the Colts into scoring position once again and Vinatieri nailed a 50-yarder to give them a 16-14 lead with 53 seconds left.
Just when it appeared the Colts would be advancing, Antonio Cromartie ripped off a 47-yard kickoff return to give the Jets excellent field position, with Mark Sanchez's 18-yard toss to Braylon Edwards pushing New York to the Colts' 14-yard line. From there, Nick Folk nailed the game-winning 32-yarder as time expired. It was just the second "win-or-lose" field goal made in NFL postseason history.
"It's certainly disappointing tonight and that's really all you think about tonight," Manning said. "It's disappointing with the way we lost tonight. Any time you lose on a last-second field goal, it certainly stings."
Best seasonal performance: Wayne continued to establish himself as one of the elite receivers in the history of the game with a remarkable season that included a career-high 111 receptions (second in the NFL) along with 1,355 yards (third) and six more touchdowns.
Wayne became the seventh player in league history to post three seasons of at least 100 receptions (he had 104 in 2007 and 100 in 2009), and the 11th to do so in consecutive seasons. He finished the season ranked second in Colts career receptions (787), yards (10,748), touchdowns (69) and 100-yard games (35). He established a club single-game record with 15 receptions at Jacksonville on October 3. He also extended his streak of games started to 129, most among active NFL wide receivers.
Wayne improved to fourth in NFL history in career playoff receptions (83), sixth in yards (1,128) and tied for sixth in touchdowns (nine).
Turning point: After a 38-35 overtime loss to Dallas on December 5, the Colts were on the brink. They had lost three in a row, games in which Manning had thrown 11 interceptions, four of which were returned for touchdowns. Their team leader remained resolute.
"I don't make any excuses," Manning said. "I'm continuing to throw, I'll keep throwing. I hope I throw it to our guys."
And that is what he did, passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns as the Colts snapped their losing streak with a 30-28 victory at Tennessee on December 9. Manning completed 25-of-35 passes and produced his 63rd career 300-yard game, tying Dan Marino for first on the career list. "Nobody likes losing three in a row," Manning said. "That's new for us. … I think we're in a four-game playoffs, and this was a playoff game tonight."
Significant moment (1): The Manning brothers squared off for just the second time in their careers, the first since the 2006 season-opener, a 26-21 victory for the Colts over the Giants. The rematch was even more lopsided as Peyton was 20-of-26 for 255 yards and three touchdowns as the Colts cruised to a 38-14 victory. Younger brother Eli was 13-of-24 for 161 yards but lost two fumbles that the Colts converted into touchdowns. The game was big for reasons beyond the sibling rivalry. The Colts were coming off a surprising 34-24 loss in Houston in the season opener and this was an important bounce-back victory.
Significant moment (2): The year before, the Colts had the division title sewn up and were able to rest their starters in the regular-season finale. Not so this time around as they had a must-win game against Tennessee with the division title on the line. Manning tossed a pair of touchdown passes and Vinatieri kicked a game-winning 43-yard field goal as the clock ran out to give them a 23-20 victory over Tennessee. It clinched their seventh AFC South title in eight years and extended their string of playoff appearances to nine, tying Dallas' NFL record (1975-83).
"I think it shows the resolve of this team and our fight," Freeney said. "It doesn't matter if we're 6-6 and we have to win our last four, we have to do it. If we have to win the last seven, we'll try to do it. That's just kind of what we are and we've been that for a while."