INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis and Atlanta rarely wage battle on the football field. The teams have been combatants only 14 times since the series started in 1966, and the Colts own a 13-1 lead in the contests.
This Sunday is the seventh series renewal during the Colts' Indianapolis era and in three seasons when teams did meet, the football fates for the Colts were dramatically different – 1986, 2003 and 2007.
Indianapolis met Atlanta in Fulton County Stadium on December 7, 1986 looking to end a 0-13 start to the season. In 2003, the Colts met Atlanta on December 14 in the middle of a playoff run that eventually would net a first AFC South title, and the club went on to reach the conference championship game. In 2007, Indianapolis was playing after posting a fourth World Championship in franchise history the previous season, and it was playing for but the third time ever on Thanksgiving Day.
Heading to Atlanta in 1986, the Colts were trying to win for the first time in the season. Intent on competing over the final three games and under the direction of new Head Coach Ron Meyer, the Colts would have a memorable trip.
Getting the first win of 1986 would not be easy for Indianapolis. Atlanta was 6-6-1 and still alive in the NFC West playoff hunt. Indianapolis triumphed, 28-23, and it was dramatic. In posting the win, the Colts twice had to comeback from two-score deficits.
The Falcons jumped out to a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter and threatened to break the game open. Late in the period, Indianapolis stuffed three Atlanta rushes inside the five-yard line to force a field goal and keep the game a 10-point affair at the break.
On the first possession of the second half, the Colts quickly marched 60 yards in eight plays. The drive ended with a touchdown when quarterback Gary Hogeboom hit wide receiver Matt Bouza for a seven-yard score. Hogeboom was playing for the first time since a shoulder injury knocked him from action in the season's second game. His insertion to the lineup was one of the first moves by Meyer.
The touchdown brought the Colts to within three, but the Falcons would answer with a pair of field goals on their next two possessions pushing the lead to 23-14 with 12:50 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Hogeboom led the offense on an 11-play, 59-yard drive that ended when wide receiver Bill Brooks hauled in a two-yard touchdown pass, cutting the lead to two points with 7:49 remaining.
The Colts defense had one more stop left in a clutch situation. The Falcons were trying to run out the clock when linebacker Dave Ahrens made a crucial sack of Atlanta quarterback Turk Schonert to set up a fourth-and-27 with less than a minute remaining.
From the Colts 48-yard line, defensive back Tate Randle blocked Rick Donnelly's punt and defensive back Eugene Daniel scooped up the bouncing ball and returned it 13 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 20 seconds remaining. Atlanta hit 23- and 25- yard passes to the Indianapolis 12-yard line, but the final play of the game was an incomplete pass in the end zone.
The 28-23 win came in a game where Atlanta had 11 more first downs than the Colts, and the Falcons led in net yards, 408-225. The addition of Meyer and the return of Hogeboom provided a spark that led Indianapolis to three straight wins to end the season.
In 2003, Indianapolis met Atlanta in the RCA Dome with the Colts battling for a division crown. The Colts were under Head Coach Tony Dungy for the second straight year, and the team was coming off a compelling 29-27 win at Tennessee to put the club in the lead for the AFC South crown with three games to go. Maintaining momentum was crucial, and the club's offense was in peak form.
On an afternoon where quarterback Peyton Manning had just as many touchdown passes as incompletions (five), the Colts defeated the Falcons, 38-7.
The Colts jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead and never looked back. The win clinched a second straight playoff berth, though the division crown remained in doubt until a win in game 16.
Offensively, the Colts were dominant and the defense did not allow any points until the Falcons' 10th possession of the game. Of the Falcons first eight drives, the Colts forced a punt five times, caused two turnovers and the half ended on a kneeldown on the other one.
On the opening drive of the game, defensive end Robert Mathis sacked quarterback Michael Vick, forcing a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Dwight Freeney.
The offense converted the turnover into points immediately when Manning hit wide receiver Reggie Wayne for a 14-yard score on the first play. Only 1:22 had elapsed off the clock at the time of the score.
After the defense forced back-to-back three-and-outs, the offense went 49 yards in seven plays as wide receiver Brandon Stokley caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Manning.
The second quarter would see more of the same from both units for the Colts as they added a Mike Vanderjagt 43-yard field goal, his 38th in a row, and Manning threw his third touchdown pass of the half. This time wide receiver Marvin Harrison got into the scoring action when he caught a 17-yard touchdown drive with 2:46 left before intermission. Manning was 18-of-22 for 202 yards and three scores in the half. Running back Edgerrin James had 106 rushing yards on 15 attempts, while Harrison had 101 reception yards.
Any hope for a second half comeback by the Falcons under newly-appointed interim Head Coach Wade Phillips was quickly squashed when Indianapolis went 60 yards in just more than two minutes on the opening drive. Manning hit Stokley for a 37-yard touchdown. It was Manning's fourth scoring toss to match his four incompletions at the time.
Both teams would add one touchdown apiece later in the period, giving the Colts a 38-7 lead that would hold as the final score. Manning became the only Colts quarterback with two career five-plus touchdown games.
James finished with 20 carries for 126 yards and Harrison's 117 reception yards marked the 17th time the duo had both topped 100 yards in the same game.
The statistical comparison between the Colts and Falcons was astronomical. The Colts had 27 first downs to 12 for Atlanta, while the net yardage margin was 465-154. The net yardage in passing belonged to the Colts, 287-29.
The victory proved large for Indianapolis when it dropped a home game to Denver the next week and entered the last week of the season knotted with Tennessee for the division crown. Both the Colts and Titans won on the last week of the season, but a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback was needed by Indianapolis to gain its first AFC South crown.
In 2007, playing on Thanksgiving for only the third time in franchise history, the Colts traveled to Atlanta looking to re-gain the momentum from a 7-0 start to the season. Indianapolis had lost consecutive games after opening the year strongly, and it took a last-second field goal to subdue Kansas City just before traveling to Atlanta. In the Georgia Dome, the Colts overcame a 10-point, first-quarter deficit into a 31-13 victory.
Having the ball for less than four minutes in the opening period, the Colts punted on both of their two possessions, while Atlanta began much differently. The Falcons started the game with a 19-play drive that led to a field goal, then they zipped 56 yards in three plays to lead 10-0 at the end of the opening frame.
The first of three consecutive touchdown drives for the Colts in the second quarter took just 28 seconds. The offense covered 43 yards in three plays as Manning and Wayne connected on a 23-yard touchdown pass in the opening minute of the period.
The Falcons answered with a Morten Andersen field goal to make the score 13-7, however that would be the final points of the game for the home team.
On the following drive, the Colts went 10 plays in 72 yards. The march was capped off when tight end Dallas Clark caught an eight-yard Manning touchdown pass.
Cornerback Kelvin Hayden then gave the offense great field possession with an interception of Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington. The Colts turned the turnover into another touchdown by moving 48 yards in four plays, with Manning throwing his third touchdown of the quarter, this time five yards to tight end Ben Utecht.
A halftime lead of 21-13 would grow to 15 on the Colts' second drive of the second half. Running back Joseph Addai finished off a seven-play, 54-yard possession with a four-yard rushing touchdown.
The defense once again set up the offense with a short field when linebacker Rocky Boiman intercepted Harrington and returned the theft to the Falcons' 24-yard line.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri capped off the scoring with a 24-yard field goal in the 31-13 victory.
The defense allowed just 250 yards, while recording two sacks and two interceptions.
Manning's touchdown pass to Wayne moved him past Warren Moon into fifth-place on the career touchdown passes list. Wayne's 66 reception yards moved him past 1,000 yards receiving for the fourth consecutive season. Rookie wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez led the Colts with six catches for 105 yards. Indianapolis would go on to record a fifth consecutive division crown.