Colts Clinch AFC No. 1 Seed with 28-16 Victory over Denver at Lucas Oil Stadium
INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts now stand alone.
That's true not only of the NFL record book – twice – but it now officially is true of the 2009 American Football Conference regular season.
With quarterback Peyton Manning passing for four touchdowns, Dallas Clark catching three and the defense playing big throughout, the Colts stayed unbeaten, moved into history and clinched the AFC's No.1 seed with a 28-16 victory over the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon in front of 67,248 at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
The Colts, one of two unbeaten teams remaining in the NFL, not only secured homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, they set two NFL records:
• Consecutive regular-season victories. The Colts' streak is now at 22. They had been tied with the 2006-08 New England Patriots at 21.
• Victories in a decade. They now have 114. They had been tied with the 1990s San Francisco 49ers at 113.
"That's a lot," said Manning, who completed 20 of 42 passes for 220 yards and four touchdowns with three interceptions, and whose 1-yard touchdown pass to Clark with 2:25 remaining secured the victory after a second-half Denver rally.
"I've always learned never to take winning for granted, but when you think about how many we have won in 10 years, you do kind of think about it and it does kind of get you. That's a bunch.
"You sure do appreciate all the hard work that's gone into those wins."
The Colts, who stayed unbeaten along with New Orleans Sunday, are 13-0 for the second time in franchise history. Only five other teams have started 13-0. The Colts also did it in 2005.
"We've just got to take it game-by-game," Colts Owner Jim Irsay said afterward. "We'd love to get to 16-0, but that's not the focus."
And while an unbeaten season, and how much the Colts will play front-line players in the last three weeks of the regular season, was a topic afterward, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said it wasn't an issue that had been decided yet.
"Right now, we are really just going to try to celebrate and enjoy this moment," Caldwell said. "I'll get to that business at some point. We'll talk about it here in the next 24 hours or so and make a determination on how we approach that."
Said Colts President Bill Polian, "It's irrelevant. I don't think there's anybody in this room that thinks about it."
To reach 13-0, the Colts needed an efficient, clock-eating late-game drive, one that came after the Broncos – with wide receiver Brandon Marshall catching an NFL-record 21 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns – cut a 21-0 first-half deficit to five, 21-16.
After a five-yard touchdown pass from Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton to Marshall, the Colts clinched the victory with an 80-yard drive that took 14 plays, consumed 7:19 and ended when Manning threw a 1-yard touchdown to Clark off play action.
The Colts, who clinched a sixth AFC South title in seven years two weeks ago, not only secured a first-round bye in the postseason, they ensured will play at Lucas Oil Stadium as long as they win in the postseason.
The Colts' first playoff game will be at Lucas Oil Stadium January 16-17.
"Today was the most imant game from the standpoint of this year's race – that's over," Polian said. "Today was the most important game if you want to talk about history, because it achieved two historic milestones. That's it. What more is there to do?"
The Colts used one of their most dominant starts of the season to take a 21-0 lead the Broncos never could overcome. The Colts were not only efficient offensively early, they were clutch defensively.
The Colts on the opening drive used 13 plays to drive 80 yards, with Manning throwing five yards to wide receiver Austin Collie for a 7-0 lead with 9:06 remaining. Manning completed 8 of 10 passes for 76 yards on the drive.
After forcing a punt on the ensuing possession, the Colts drove 56 yards on seven plays, with Manning finishing the drive with the first of two first-half touchdown passes to Clark – this one, a 10-yarder that Clark caught near the 2-yard line before stepping into end zone.
The Broncos' defense slowed the Colts after that, but the Colts – in the middle of a second consecutive big first half – pushed the lead to three touchdowns before the Broncos cut into it before halftime.
With 7:58 remaining in the half, Manning capped an 11-play, 71-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Clark. That made it 21-0.
With Orton working effectively to Marshall, the Broncos drove 80 yards on 12 plays, pulling to within 21-7 when Orton passes five yards to Marshall. Marshall caught 10 passes for 109 yards in the half, with Orton completing 16 of 18 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown.
Manning completed 15 of 27 passes in the half for 154 yards and three touchdowns with an interception, and running back Joseph Addai had one of his biggest halves of the season, carrying 10 times for 50 yards.
Manning, who had a tipped pass intercepted in the first half, threw two more interceptions in a difficult third quarter for the Colts' offense. After a scoreless third quarter, Denver turned the second third-quarter interception into a five-play, 14-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard field goal by Matt Prater.
That made it 21-10, Colts, and with 9:44 remaining, Orton threw a second touchdown to Marshall – a 5-yarder that capped an 11-play, 68-yard drive. The Colts stopped a run by rookie running back Knowshon Moreno to maintain the lead at five.
The Colts then put together a memorable, game-clinching drive, but Caldwell said the victory was as much about the defense. Despite allowing Marshall 200 yards, and despite Orton passing for 277 yards and two touchdowns, the Colts forced one turnover and stopped the Broncos twice on 4th-and-1.
"They were able to stall us quite a bit in that second half," Caldwell said. "I'm not sure I've seen a better defensive effort than the one our guys put forth today. At the end, when we needed it and had to get that thing in the end zone, the offense came up with a 14-play drive. That was key.
"It's been a very unusual team from the onset – a very close-knit group of guys that understand how to fight in big games, particularly when things may not be going well for one side of the ball, or one phase. The way they stick together, the way they step up and play, is impressive.
"There are just so many guys who have done a tremendous job stepping in and filling the gap for one another."