INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts have won nine divisional titles in their Indianapolis era that dates back to 1984.
The seven titles the club has won in the AFC South likely are the freshest in the minds of Colts fans.
Long-time followers of the club can remember an AFC East crown that was earned in 1999, but it takes very long-tenured followers to recall the first division title captured by the Colts after moving to Indianapolis.
After records of 4-12 in 1984, 5-11 in 1985 and 3-13 in 1986, winning a title in a division shared with Miami, New England, Buffalo and the New York Jets might have seemed out of reach for Indianapolis and its fans.
The moment happened on December 27, 1987, when the Colts topped Tampa Bay, 24-6.
After dropping 13 games to start the 1986 season, the club named Ron Meyer as head coach. Indianapolis closed the season with three straight wins and moved toward the future.
The team was heavy on veterans with an offensive line that included Ray Donaldson, Chris Hinton, Ron Solt and Ben Utt. Wide receivers included Bill Brooks and Matt Bouza, while tight ends Tim Sherwin and Pat Beach were established in their careers, too. Albert Bentley was in his third season, and it would prove to be a big one for the talented running back. Gary Hogeboom was coming off a 1986 season which limited him to five games, and Jack Trudeau was in his second year. Donnell Thompson was the most senior member of the club's 3-4 set, and Jon Hand was in his second season. The veteran linebacking corps featured Johnie Cooks, Barry Krauss, Cliff Odom and Duane Bickett, known very well by followers of the club. The secondary was anchored by Eugene Daniel and Nesby Glasgow and the club's kickers, Dean Biasucci and Rohn Stark were top performers.
Many of these players had been in place during the club's first three seasons, but none of them had tasted career success with the team.
As with any season, changes happen suddenly, newcomers can flourish and a club competing for a title must win down the stretch. All of that happened for Indianapolis to set up its game with Tampa Bay as a pivotal opportunity.
Indianapolis lost its first two games before players went on strike. Replacement players won two of three games, but the biggest change for the club was the Halloween acquisition of running back Eric Dickerson in a three-way trade involving the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo.
Dickerson joined Bentley in the backfield, Trudeau (eight starts) and Hogeboom (six) shared quarterback duties and the Colts remained competitive in a division where all five teams won between six and nine games.
In the season's 13th game, Buffalo dealt Indianapolis a 27-3 loss in the Hoosier Dome, and it gave Buffalo the inside position for the AFC East title. A week later, Indianapolis was at San Diego and learned prior to kickoff that New England had beaten the Bills. The Colts would beat San Diego, 20-7, thus putting Indianapolis in the driver's seat for division honors.
The club's first AFC East title since 1977 would be won if the Colts (8-6) could beat Tampa Bay (4-10) in Indianapolis two days after Christmas. A loss would relegate the Colts to depending on tie-breakers to get a wild card slot.
A soldout stadium of 60,468 followers, roared as the Colts got the opening possession. Trudeau hit Bentley on a 55-yard pass and Dickerson on a 17-yarder before Dickerson scored on a six-yard rush. Just more than three minutes into the game Indianapolis led, 7-0.
It would be all the points the club needed to prevail. Indianapolis controlled the ball for more than 18 minutes of the opening half. Biasucci's 30-yard field goal eight seconds prior to intermission countered a Tampa Bay first-quarter field goal. Indianapolis led at the break, 10-3.
Dickerson rushed for 77 yards on 15 attempts in the half. Trudeau hit 13-of-22 passes for 172 yards, and the club held an advantage in net yards, 250-85. Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testerverde hit three-of-14 first-half pass attempts.
The only drama during the second half was what the celebration would be at the final gun. The Colts would control the ball for 9:35 of the third period and for 11:41 of the final quarter. Dickerson added a 34-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He would rush 33 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns on the day, then the second-most rushing yards in Colts history (198, Norm Bulaich, 1971). Bentley's two-yard run midway through the final quarter accounted for the game's final scoring play, and the Colts milked the final 6:40 off the clock in a 24-6 victory.
Trudeau hit 17-of-27 passes for 246 yards, while the club had 226 yards on the ground. Newcomer and former Buccaneer Mike Prior had the game's only interception, and Indianapolis allowed just eight completions on 31 Tampa Bay pass attempts.
In the locker room after the game, linebacker Barry Krauss lauded the job done by Meyer. "He changed the attitude. It's like Santa Claus came to town and brought attitude in his bag."
Indianapolis would have a first-round bye in the post-season, but dropped a Divisional Playoff battle at Cleveland.
Six Colts were named to the Pro Bowl – Hinton, Donaldson, Solt, Dickerson, Bickett and Biasucci, who hit 24-of-27 field goals.
More critical regular season and playoff games would become part of the club's future landscape, but the first 'win-and-in' scenario for the Colts came against Tampa Bay in 1987, and the club prevailed.