Colts Make History, Maintain Momentum with 23-0 Victory over Tennessee
INDIANAPOLIS – In a sense, the game was without meaning.
And yet, in another sense – a very real sense – Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said that wasn't the case at all. On Sunday, the Colts played in the latter sense.
The streaking Colts (12-4), with a chance to not only make history but to maintain their late-season momentum, accomplished both feats in memorable fashion early Sunday afternoon, pulling away for a 23-0 victory over the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans (13-3) in front of 66,721 at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
"I told the team (Saturday) night that every game has its own identity," Dungy said. "No matter how the games played out this year, we've been able to find a way these last eight weeks to win them. That was the same thing today."
The Colts on Sunday made history individually, with wide receiver Marvin Harrison, tight end Dallas Clark and Peyton Manning reaching personal milestones before early exits.
They made it as a team, too.
With the victory, the Colts won a 12th game for a sixth consecutive season. The Colts won 12 games in 2003 and 2004, 14 in 2005, 12 in 2006 and 13 last season.
"Peyton and I said it today, this morning as we were talking, '11-5 or 12-4 . . . you tell me which sounds better,' " Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "Twelve-and-four, obviously. It's something we had in mind that we wanted to get."
Said Manning, "You don't take for granted winning football games. To win 12 games this year, especially being 3-4, is a testament to our players and coaches for grinding away, continuing to work and staying together. Obviously, we want to keep it going."
No other NFL team has won 12 or more games in more than four consecutive seasons.
"Our guys wanted that, they really did," Dungy said. "We've talked about that all week. It was something that hadn't been done before in the league, showing that consistency. I think the guys who have been here the whole time – (defensive linemen) Raheem (Brock), Dwight (Freeney), Peyton, (wide receivers) Marvin (Harrison), Reggie (punter) Hunter Smith . . . those guys, it meant a lot to them.
"They kind of carried the load in practice and set a great tempo. Our veteran guys knew they weren't going to play the whole way, but they wanted to win. It was imant to them. They went out and got it."
Said Saturday, "I don't know if you can say enough about it. It's an enormous team goal, an enormous team accomplishment. There are teams that don't win 12 games in a season ever. To have done it six years in a row, I don't know that you can put words on it.
"That's a fantastic run. I'm real proud and excited to be a part of it."
The Colts this season won their last nine consecutive games to reach the mark, clinching their seventh consecutive playoff appearance a week ago with a victory in Jacksonville. They also secured the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs last week, meaning Sunday's game had no playoff implications for the Colts.
The Titans, who snapped the Colts' streak of five consecutive AFC South titles, also played the game without playoff implications, having secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last week. Tennessee has a first-round bye next week and will play host to an AFC Divisional Playoff game January 10-11.
For the Colts, the playoffs open next weekend.
Where and who they will play had yet to be decided Sunday afternoon.
The Colts, because they are a Wild Card team and not a division champion, will open the postseason on the road, playing at the winner of the AFC West. The Denver Broncos (8-7) and San Diego Chargers (7-8) play in San Diego Sunday night, with the winner winning the West.
The Colts will play the San Diego-Denver winner in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game on Saturday/Sunday January 3-4, with a time to be determined.
"I think the biggest key during our win streak is we have had that good preparation," Manning said. "The main focus now is having a good week of practice."
The ninth consecutive victory matched the Colts' second-longest winning streak in Dungy's seven seasons. They won their first nine games of the 2006 season and also won 13 consecutive games to start the 2005 season.
The victory also kept the Titans from becoming the first team to sweep the Colts in the regular season since 2002, when Tennessee swept the Colts en route to the AFC South title. The Titans beat the Colts, 31-21, in Nashville in late October.
"Obviously, if we play them again (in the postseason), this game isn't going to mean a whole lot," Dungy said. "There wasn't much riding on it, but you always want to come out and play well. You want to defend your home turf and the fact that they had beaten us the last two – it feels good to win."
For the Colts' defense, the day had historical meaning, too. The shutout was the first for Indianapolis since beating the Miami Dolphins, 41-0, on December 14, 1997.
"It was great," Colts defensive end Raheem Brock said. "We knew the young guys were going to take over in the second half. That's why we told them how important it (winning a 12th game) was. Plus, we wanted that momentum. The younger guys went in there and played great defensively, especially on the defensive line. It looked like they're going to help us in the playoffs.
"It's exciting to see that."
Manning, who started his 176th consecutive regular-season game, threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to running back Joseph Addai on the game's first series. Manning passed for 95 yards on the drive, surpassing the 4,000-yard mark for the season for the ninth time in his 11 NFL seasons.
Manning's nine 4,000-yard seasons are an NFL record. Dan Marino threw for 4,000 or more yards in six seasons.
Manning and many offensive starters left the game after the first drive.
"It was a pretty good team effort on all parts," Manning said. "We got a touchdown on the first drive and started making substitutions. Young guys came in in different spots. Running backs came in and did a good job and some of those young linemen came in and did a good job. And defensively, having the shutout is nice."
Clark, the Colts' sixth-year tight end, stayed in the game until the second quarter, leaving after he caught a 23-yard pass to set the Colts franchise record for receiving yardage by a tight end. Clark caught six passes for 59 yards Sunday and finished the season with 77 receptions for 848 yards and six touchdowns.
Later in the half, Harrison left to an ovation from fans and to congratulations from his teammates and coaches after moving into second place on the NFL's all-time receptions list.
Harrison, 13-year veteran and eight-time Pro Bowl selection, caught seven passes for 31 yards Sunday, surpassing Cris Carter (1,101 receptions) with his seventh of the game. Harrison now has 1,102 receptions for 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns for his career.
"As a former player, when guys have worked hard and they're within reach of things that really are meaningful to them, you like to see them get the chance to get it," Dungy said. "You have to keep in mind the team goals and injures and those kinds of things. But I think it was good.
"We had a number of guys who had a chance to get some things. They worked hard and got them. I'm glad we were able to."
Jim Sorgi, filling in for Manning, directed a 70-yard, 14-play drive on his first series – the Colts' second of the game – a series that ended with a 28-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri to give the Colts a 10-0 lead.
Vinatieri added field goals of 21 and 38 yards in the second quarter to push the Colts' lead to 16-0.
The Colts outgained Tennessee, 274-30, in the first half, and held the Titans to one first down. Sorgi finished the first half having completed 19 of 27 passes for 139 yards, while Manning completed seven of seven passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, as the Titans also removed many of their starters during the first quarter or soon thereafter.
With Vince Young – the No. 3 selection in the 2006 NFL Draft who hadn't played since Week 1 – and Chris Simms playing in place of quarterback Kerry Collins, the Titans finished the game with 125 yards and eight first downs. Because of the defensive effort, and because of an efficient offense that went the entire game without a turnover, the Colts did what they couldn't do last season, when they lost to Tennessee, 16-10, in the regular-season finale and final game at the RCA Dome.
"We played well and we wanted to get off to a fast start with our first group and we did," Dungy said. "Obviously, they (the Titans) didn't have the incentive like a playoff game. We had the home crowd and a few things we were trying to reach individually, and I think that carried us through.
"I was proud of our guys, and the way they played. Battling back, winning nine straight to go onto the playoffs, is good. . . .
"I like where we are. I think we'll be ready next week wherever we have to go."