The two Colts receivers talked about the playoff possibilities as soon as their regular-season finale against the Broncos on Jan. 2 had ended. Though Indianapolis had played mostly reserves and lost that game, wideouts Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley couldn't contain their glee as the team bus pulled away from Invesco Field. They had noticed Denver's tendency to expose rookie cornerback Roc Alexander in man coverage on blitzes, and they figured Alexander would be assigned to Wayne in an AFC wild-card meeting between the teams the following week. "We knew it was going to be a mismatch," Wayne recalled later.
When the Colts faced the Broncos on Sunday, it was expected that Indianapolis would pile up points as it had all season. But few outside the Colts could imagine how devastating Wayne would be to the Denver secondary in a 49-24 victory. He caught short passes and turned them into long gains. He raced up the sideline on one play, drew a pass-interference penalty from Alexander and still made a diving, 49-yard catch. All told, Wayne caught 10 passes, two for touchdowns, and his 221 receiving yards were the third highest total in NFL postseason history.
In showcasing Indy's formidable offense, Peyton Manning relied on Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark (six receptions, 112 yards, one touchdown). Though Stokley, fellow wideout Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James were underutilized, the Colts still piled up 529 total yards, including 395 in the first half while jumping to a 35-3 lead. Afterward, Broncos free safety John Lynch, a 12-year veteran, said he had never before been in a game in which he felt "almost hopeless" about his team's defensive schemes.
Don't expect the Patriots to share those feelings when they host Indianapolis in an AFC divisional playoff this Sunday, though New England's secondary is banged up and Wayne could again be a huge factor. This season he set career highs in receptions (77), yards (1,210) and touchdowns (12), and he's gaining more confidence every week. "I'm really comfortable in this offense," he says. "My first couple of years, I had to learn a lot of things, but now I can just go out and have fun."
A first-round draft pick in 2001, Wayne was seen as a receiver who would complement Harrison, Manning's favorite target. But ankle and knee injuries slowed him during his rookie year, as did his frustration about not having the chemistry with Manning that Harrison had developed. Wayne noticed the subtle eye contact between those two players and wondered how they used it to make route adjustments. "The biggest thing I had to do with Reggie back then was keep him patient," says receivers coach Clyde Christensen. "I always told him his time was coming."
Wayne became a full-time starter last year, catching 68 passes and scoring seven touchdowns, but 2004 was his breakout season. He torched the Packers (11 receptions, 184 yards, one touchdown) and Chiefs (six, 119, two) among others, and displayed a fiery personality. He went so far as to give Manning a shove on the sideline after the two had argued near the end of a 27-24 loss to the Jaguars.
Early last week, after Lynch and fellow Denver safety Kenoy Kennedy intimated to reporters that the Indianapolis receivers were soft, Wayne bristled at the comments--"Ain't no coward in my blood," he said--and on Sunday backed up his words.
DR. Z'S FORECAST: COLTS vs. PATRIOTS
UPSET PICK, and it's a mild one: Indianapolis wins it. If I'm wrong, and I probably will be for underestimating the resilience and resourcefulness of the Pats, I won't be surprised. New England always scores against the Colts--an average of 34.2 points in the last five meetings. But I can't get the picture of Peyton Manning attacking Broncos corner Roc Alexander out of my mind.