Colts Constantly Remind To Expect The Unexpected
As the weather turned cold in December of 2005, thoughts weren’t centering on Christmas.
A reporter’s ultimate assignment was going to be enjoyed in five weeks, when the Indianapolis Colts’ best team in the Peyton Manning era was destined to play in the Super Bowl. They had beaten their first 13 opponents by a touchdown or more that year. Some games, Manning never saw the field in the fourth quarter.
It’s not the first time I’ve been a bit selfish in my career. We’re trained to be objective, but certain assignments like the Super Bowl, well, yeah, it meant a lot to check that off the bucket list.
Dispatched to Pittsburgh to write about the Steelers, who would be visiting the Colts at the RCA Dome for an AFC Divisional playoff game, an extra assignment was given: Summarize each Colts game for a coffee table book that The Indianapolis Star would print after those men in blue hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Nights were spent at the hotel working on those chapters. How could I not be a bit giddy? I grew up mostly in Ohio as a Steelers fan and this trip provided a lifetime thrill — meeting “Mean” Joe Greene for the first time at the Steelers complex. Like a fan, I embarrassed myself after our chat by repeating the famous Coca-Cola commercial line from that kid who Greene had tossed his No. 75 jersey — “Thanks, ‘Mean’ Joe!”
The Colts had handled the Steelers with ease during the regular season in a memorable Monday night beatdown, so this second-round playoff game was going to be no problem. Or so many of us thought.
Yeah, that coffee table book didn't get printed.
Colts fans will never forget happened next. The Steelers blitzed Manning from seemingly everywhere, the Colts dug a hole, then rallied in the fourth quarter. All seemed lost with Jerome Bettis slamming his way toward the end zone for the finishing touchdown, but Gary Brackett caused a fumble, the Colts’ Nick Harper scooped it up and we were about to witness one of the greatest playoff escapes in NFL history until Ben Roethlisberger tripped up Harper on what should have been a TD return.
The Colts drove in position for a tying field goal, but Mike Vanderjagt couldn’t have missed more badly wide right. I can still see the kicker taking his helmet off and slamming it to the ground. The Steelers won 21-18, and eventually earned what was supposed to be my trip to Detroit, where the black and gold hoisted that Vince Lombardi Trophy.
That turned out to be a rather harsh lesson learned. It’s a common mistake for media covering the NFL. They want to provide knowledgable, insightful perspective, but don’t ever be too certain about anything. Don’t ever get your hopes up, just do your job and cover what happens.
Bottom line, after that experience, expect the unexpected.
Every now and then, that lesson can be forgotten. But this season, the Colts (6-4) have offered continual reminders on what has been repeatedly described as a roller coaster ride. Let’s review.
Until Sunday’s 33-13 home rout of Jacksonville, the Colts played nine consecutive one-score games. They should have won the season opener at Los Angeles, but the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history had issues. Hey, even a future Hall of Famer can have a bad day.
After order seemed restored with back-to-back wins, the Colts stumbled at home against the Oakland Raiders, which in hindsight doesn’t seem like such a bad loss now that head coach Jon Gruden’s team is 6-4 and like the Colts is a legitimate playoff contender.
So naturally the Colts were doomed in a visit to Kansas City. That was written on this site beforehand, albeit a bit of reverse psychology, but that was the expectation. Once again, we are reminded to not be too sure about anything. The 10-point underdog Colts pulled off the upset.
A five-game stretch with four home games seemed rather promising. That started off positively with a 30-23 home win over Houston and a 15-13 home escape against Denver, the latter thanks to kicker Adam Vinatieri nailing a 51-yard field goal in the final minute.
Just when the thought enters the mind a team that has overcome the retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck could be an AFC Championship contender, the Colts stumble at Pittsburgh in a very winnable game that ended with a Vinatieri missed field goal. That one wasn’t all on Vinatieri, either, be it that fateful kick facing the laces or several previous mistakes that put the Colts in that position when they should have put away the Steelers earlier.
As disappointing as that game turned out, the Colts clearly bottomed out back at home in losing to the Miami Dolphins. Yeah, one of the league’s worst teams came in and knocked off the Colts 16-12, no question among the most humbling setbacks in recent memory. That doesn’t quite compare to the playoff loss to the Steelers, but it was quite unexpected, to say the least.
If nothing else, a season-long trend continued.
Once again, the premonition to fear the worst returns. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is at the top of a lengthy injury report. Sometimes, teams just can’t overcome too many negative factors.
But then the Colts pounded the Jaguars, rushing for 264 yards and treating the Lucas Oil Stadium faithful to what turned out to be an easy win, again, when least expected.
So what do we make of the Colts? They can beat anybody and lose to anybody. That’s about as simple a rationalization as anyone can make entering Thursday night’s trip to Houston in a showdown of 6-4 teams to decide who will sit atop the AFC South Division.
The Colts are 3-0 in the division while the Texans are 2-1. A Colts sweep would essentially mean a two-game lead with five to play.
The Texans, coming off a bye, imploded in a 41-7 road loss at Baltimore at Sunday. They no longer have pass-rushing great J.J. Watt, lost a week after the previous Colts game to a torn pectoral muscle. The offensive line is a mess, allowing seven sacks against the Ravens.
But should the Colts lose, their situation gets rather sticky. While the Texans would have a one-game lead, which is by no means insurmountable considering their flaws, they would have the same division record but a distinct advantage in the conference record tiebreaker. The Texans would be 6-2 while the Colts would fall to 5-5.
At the risk of sounding rather sure of that situation, the Colts probably can’t win the division on that tiebreaker if they lose Thursday night. And that also means they have an uphill climb to earn a wild-card playoff spot.
That said, we saw this team rebound from 1-5 to 10-6 and a wild-card playoff spot last season, the first postseason appearance since 2014. So we’re always reminded to not count these guys out.
On a short week, there’s no way to have any idea what happens next. The NFL thrives on that parity. It’s why millions watch and billions are paid for TV rights.
How’s that for self-assured perspective? It would make fans smile to write the Colts should win on Thursday. It would make them frown to suggest that's not going to happen.
But truth is, again, we have no idea where the roller coaster ride will take us next. The lesson learned 13 years ago will never be forgotten, especially since we are constantly reminded — expect the unexpected.