Colts Ready for Eighth Consecutive Playoff Appearance after 30-7 Loss at Buffalo
There was stumbling, fumbling and a lot of slipping and sliding.
And by the time the regular-season finale ended, by the time the Colts lost to the Buffalo Bills, 30-7, in front of 69,848 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday afternoon in a game played in frigid, blizzard-like conditions, the focus was on the future.
The regular season is over.
And now, it's all about the post-season.
"It's been one of those years the team has played so well, overcoming a lot of obstacles," Head Coach Jim Caldwell told Colts Radio after a regular season in which the Colts not only finished with the NFL's best record, but also tied a franchise record for regular-season victories.
"The players and the coaching staff have really done a tremendous job achieving something we set out to do in terms of our goals. We wanted to win the division. They did it in fine fashion without losing a game. We wanted to be able to claim home-field advantage in terms of the playoffs. We were able to do that, so the guys were able to measure up against challenging opponents.
"It has been a good year so far, and now you're at the most imant part. This is the time that all those things go out the window if you don't finish it right."
The Colts (14-2), after winning their first 14 regular-season games to extend their NFL regular-season record winning streak to 23, lost their final two games in situations in which many of their front-line players left the game early. They lost to the New York Jets, 29-15, last week in Indianapolis.
The Colts clinched the AFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason with three games remaining in the season.
Indianapolis will play host to an AFC Divisional Playoff game January 16 or 17.
With observers, analysts and fans throughout this past week discussing the Colts' late-season strategy of focusing on the playoffs rather than an unbeaten season, quarterback Peyton Manning said he discussed the situation with players Wednesday.
"I just said we need to put last weekend behind us," Manning told reporters Sunday. "It's got to be over. Realizing it was continuing to be discussed amongst our fans and amongst our city, and our organization was continuing to address it. As players, I just said, 'We've got to move on. We've got to move on to the next step.'
"Here we are now in playoff mode and that's where our focus is."
Manning also addressed Colts fans:
"I just want to say to our fans how much we're going to need them the next two weekends. They've been great for us all year, passionate in their support for us. To win in two weeks, the fans are going to have to be there for us. Hopefully, they'll forgive what happened last weekend and we can all move on together and we'll be ready to go in two weekends."
On Sunday, the Colts played healthy front-line players through the first quarter, after which the game was tied, 7-7, and during which several Colts players reached seasonal milestones.
Tight end Dallas Clark, named this week to his first Pro Bowl team, caught seven passes for 52 yards. He left the game after having become the second tight end in NFL history to catch 100 or more passes in a season. Clark finished the season with 100 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons caught 102 passes in 2004.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne, named this week to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time, caught five first-quarter passes for 21 yards. He left after the first quarter, having finished the regular season with 100 receptions for 1,264 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was Wayne's second career 100-reception season.
Manning completed 14 of 18 passes for 95 yards with a touchdown and an interception and finished the season having completed 379 of 553 passes for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns with 16 interceptions.
The Colts, who fell behind early when Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick passed 11 yards to running back Fred Jackson, tied it, 7-7, with a 12-play, 72-yard drive on the ensuing possession. Second-year running back Mike Hart's 1-yard run tied the game with 3:52 remaining in the first quarter.
"Obviously, that's not how you want to finish the regular season on that drive," Manning said, referring to a first drive that ended with an interception. "These are not games you want to lose. You try to get the lead and see if you can hold it. It was good to get that drive to get into the end zone on that second series."
With most of the Colts' front-line players out of the game after the first period, the Bills pushed the lead to 24-7 at halftime, with Fitzpatrick throwing a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lee Evans with 5:02 remaining before halftime and a 41-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Terrell Owens two and a half minutes later.
A 31-yard field goal by Ryan Lindell made it 24-7, Bills, with 14 seconds remaining in the quarter.
The Colts on Sunday played with the following players inactive: defensive end Dwight Freeney (abdomen), defensive tackle Antonio Johnson (shoulder), linebacker Clint Session (knee), kicker Adam Vinatieri (right knee), right tackle Ryan Diem (elbow), cornerback Jerraud Powers (hamstring), running back Chad Simpson (concussion) and tight end Gijon Robinson (knee).
Defensive end Robert Mathis (quad), safety Melvin Bullitt (shoulder), wide receiver Pierre Garcon (hand), running back Joseph Addai and left tackle Charlie Johnson (foot) also did not play.
Offensive tackle Michael Toudouze started for Diem and Tony Ugoh started for Johnson. Rookie wide receiver Austin Collie started for Garcon and tight end Jacob Tamme played for Robinson.
Defensively, Ervin Baldwin and DE Raheem Brock started for Freeney and Robert Mathis (quad), and Eric Foster started for Johnson. Ramon Humber started for Session, and Jacob Lacey started for Powers, with Jamie Silva starting for Bullitt.
"We make no excuses for who didn't play," Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "Ultimately, what we wanted was a victory. . . . I think we're shifting gears now for the playoffs. It's tough. Obviously, playing whatever the temperature and in the snow, with nothing on the line, that's always tough, but guys always want to go out and play their best football. Today, we didn't get that done."
Now, Brackett said, the goals are clear.
"First things first, we get a (first-round postseason) bye, take care of our body and get back into the swing of things," Brackett said.
"Come this week, we're in playoff mode," Manning said. "We have to get ready for whoever we're going to play here in two weeks and get ready to play some good, playoff football."