HOUSTON – Here's the great part about the Indianapolis Colts clinching the AFC South title with five weeks left in the season: The national media has ample time to remind them of how much they have flopped in the playoffs.
In other words, they are starting to look very much like the NFL's version of the Atlanta Braves.
Yes, the Colts have a Super Bowl title to their name and they have built one of the great franchises in NFL history. You don't win an NFL-record 11 games or more in seven straight seasons, go 80-20 over your last 100 games or win 20 consecutive regular-season games (one short of the New England Patriots' league record) without being special.
At the same time, there's a nagging feeling that the Colts, who rallied for a 35-27 comeback win against the Houston Texans on Sunday, haven't done enough. Aside from the title run in the 2006 season, the Colts have been eliminated from the playoffs after only one game in five of the other seven years they made the postseason this decade.
You can pile up all the numbers you want about the Colts or quarterback Peyton Manning(notes), but the feeling doesn't go away. In fact, it serves only to make Manning look like Greg Maddux. Truly great, perhaps the greatest passer ever, but always leaving some to wonder if he and his team did enough with what he had.
Fact is, maybe the Colts need to hear that … a lot. Maybe they need to be reminded of how unimpressive they were in the early going of this latest victory, which included spotting Houston a 17-0. The Texans, inconsistency's darlings, looked downright dominant for the better part of 20 minutes and even maintained control for the first half before allowing Indy to go on a 35-3 run.
It was reminiscent of how the Miami Dolphins looked strong for 55 minutes against the Colts earlier this season. Or how the New England Patriots looked great against Indy for 58 minutes.
Translation: Even though the Colts are 11-0 right now, they're dancing on a tightrope.
And given the pedestal they're on, that tightrope is suspended from two skyscrapers. That's why the criticism of the Colts is so unique and so difficult to explain or accept.
"We're happy about wins," said Manning, nattily dressed in a banker's suit and talking as if he'd just completed a merger deal. "We don't get overexcited. When things aren't going the way we want them to, we don't panic. We don't yell, we don't throw helmets."
Or as first-year coach Jim Caldwell put it as his team played without five defensive starters, including star lineman Dwight Freeney(notes): "I think our guys have grown accustomed with traveling with what we call our little packet of poise, confidence, pride and passion, because you have to take that on the road to win in this league."
That's all well and good and the game Sunday was very impressive from that standpoint. The Colts never flinched, even as they made mistakes. Even when rookie wide receiver Austin Collie(notes) failed to get out of bounds on a late drive in the first half or when 19-year veteran kicker Matt Stover(notes) missed a 32-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, the Colts never flinched.
"Obviously, you don't want to be down 17 points to anybody," said Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday(notes), who has seen the Colts rebound from 17-point deficits twice in the past three games. "I can assure you that none of us are intending to be down 17 points. Usually when that happens, you don't win. By no stretch of the imagination are we trying to do that, thinking that we can just come back anytime. I think it proves there's no quit in this team, but this is not a script we want to get familiar with."
The flipside of this game can be summarized by the look on Houston owner Bob McNair's face as he and his management team walked through the bowels of Reliant Stadium. McNair, an affable man who usually wears a smile, led the group – including son Cal McNair and general manager Rick Smith – on something akin to a death march.
A look at Indy in the playoffs since 2000:
|'08||0-1/L vs. S.D. in wild card|
|'07||0-1/L vs. S.D. in divisional|
|'06||4-0/W vs. Chi. in Super Bowl|
|'05||0-1/L vs. Pitt. in divisional|
|'04||1-1/L vs. N.E. in divisional|
|'03||2-1/L vs. N.E. in AFC title game|
|'02||0-1/L vs. NYJ in wild card|
|'00||0-1/L vs. Miami in wild card|
Whether head coach Gary Kubiak is at the end of that march remains to be seen. McNair isn't a man given to whim, but he was so tense as he walked that a tow truck might have been necessary to loosen him up. That's because the implosion by the Texans was as ugly as it was predictable. Houston, which was 5-3 at midseason and then gave Indianapolis all it could handle in a 20-17 loss on Nov. 8, has been one of the great teases of the NFL. The Texans will play well enough to get fans excited for a few weeks, then regress.
Sunday was the microcosm. Houston posted two impressive touchdown drives to open the game and then intercepted Manning to set up a field goal for the 17-0 margin early in the second quarter.
Even as Houston kept the lead at 20-7 at halftime, any sense of confidence in the Texans was purely a façade. Leading the false hope was quarterback Matt Schaub(notes), a guy who had been the team's most valuable player to this point. In the first half, Schaub was brilliant as he completed 14 of 17 passes for 152 yards and one touchdown.
But as the game got tight in the second half, Schaub got tighter. He threw two interceptions following intermission. The first wasn't his fault as wide receiver Andre Johnson(notes) ran the wrong route on a deep pass and Colts safety Antoine Bethea(notes) took advantage for an impressive one-handed snag.
The second interception was a different matter. After the Colts had taken a 21-20 lead with 8:24 remaining in the game, Schaub threw a brutal interception that linebacker Clint Session(notes) returned for a 27-yard touchdown.
On the next series, the Texans completed their butchering of this game as offensive tackles Eric Winston(notes) (holding penalty) and Duane Brown(notes) (beaten for a sack) made back-to-back miscues. The second play resulted in Colts defensive end Robert Mathis(notes) stripping the ball from Schaub for the third turnover of the half.
Again, that's an impressive run by the Colts, who have an array of experienced star players who know how to win and have done it a lot.
Just not as much as they'd hope in the playoffs.
- The Texans