OAKLAND, Calif. – Dwight Freeney(notes) sat on a steel bench on the south end of the Indianapolis Colts' sideline, sucking oxygen from a mask connected to a tank by a bright green hose. If every picture tells a story, this image of the veteran defensive end conveyed everything you needed to know about his winded, taxed-to-the-limit team, which was clinging to a five-point lead over the Raiders at the Oakland Coliseum late Sunday afternoon.
As always, it was left to Peyton Manning(notes) to bail out the breathless boys in white and blue, and at that very moment the quarterback was cooking up a surprise for the 52,567 roaring fans at the Coliseum, the Raiders and even his own teammates. Standing a few feet from Freeney after an Oakland timeout with 1:45 remaining, Manning and Indy offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen discussed the idea of the pocket-dwelling quarterback catching the Raiders off guard by running a naked bootleg. Coach Jim Caldwell was the only other person in the loop, with Manning, as is his custom, retaining executive-decision-making power at the line of scrimmage.
Soon, in one of the more stunning scenes of this surreal season, Manning would be chugging toward the end zone. And the league was left to ponder the notion that against all logic the defending AFC champions, who are closing in on an NFL-record-tying ninth consecutive trip to the playoffs, just might be hitting their stride.
"Every year is different, with different challenges," Freeney said following Indy's 31-26 victory, which left the Colts (9-6) a game ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars and on the verge of capturing the AFC South title. "We've had ups and downs, and more ups and downs. It's tiring, but it's exciting. We can't start 14-0 every year. This is the year to get some momentum going into the playoffs."
With only a victory or tie next Sunday against the Tennessee Titans – or a Jags defeat or tie vs. the Houston Texans – standing between them and the postseason, the Colts believe inertia is in their favor. The sight of Manning motoring (OK, maybe Sunday driving) toward the goal line certainly created the impression of momentum, however deliberate it may have seemed.
"I blocked to my right, turned around and saw him running with his head back and arms bent – he looked like a five-year-old running the football," veteran center Jeff Saturday(notes) said of Manning's 27-yard carry, the second-longest of the quarterback's 13-year career. "He wasn't fast. Let's just say he's built for torque, not for speed."
As anyone who has followed the future Hall of Famer's career knows, it's what's under the hood that sets him apart. On third-and-2 from the Oakland 31-yard line with 1:39 to go, Manning capped off an emphatic display of histrionics at the line by running a play-fake to Dominic Rhodes(notes) that was so cold, even the halfback thought he had the football as he darted to his right. He didn't – Manning kept it, rambled to his left and spent some quality time with himself, foregoing a touchdown in favor of a game-clinching slide four yards from paydirt.
"If you tell people, they don't block the same, and [it's not as convincing]," Manning said afterward. "The only way to do it is if you don't tell anybody."
Don't tell the people who assumed Indy was done a few weeks ago, when it lost its third consecutive game to drop to 6-6, but the injury-plagued Colts appear headed to the postseason with a bounce in their step – and a quarterback who gives them at least a fighting chance to overcome their many flaws.
Yes, this will be the first time since 2002 that Indy fails to win at least 12 games in a regular season, and no, the Colts won't have the luxury of a first-round bye if they reach the playoffs. (They could earn the No. 3 seed with a victory over the Titans and a Chiefs loss to the Raiders; otherwise, they'd be seeded fourth.)
Yet Indy faced a similar scenario in 2006, when it entered the playoffs as a No. 3 seed and won four games to capture its lone Super Bowl championship of the Manning era.
While that may be wishful thinking, there are some legitimate parallels. As with '06, the Colts are showing signs of shaking off a season-long struggle in the running game – both on the offensive and defensive ends – at an opportune time.
As with last week's victory over the Jags, Indy faced an opponent that entered the game with the league's No. 2 rushing attack and locked it down. Oakland's dangerous halfback Darren McFadden(notes) gained just 45 yards on 11 carries, with one 26-yard burst in the second quarter accounting for much of that total.
Meanwhile, the Colts were proficient on the ground for the second consecutive week, rushing for a season-high 191 yards. The bulk of those came from an unlikely source: The recently re-signed Rhodes (17 carries, 98 yards), who led the UFL in rushing for the Florida Tuskers this season, looks better than ever in his third stint with the Colts. On Sunday he was just as spry as he was in Indy's Super Bowl XLI victory over the Bears, when he ran for 113 yards – an effort that helped earn him a hefty free-agent contract from the Raiders after the '06 season, though he was a huge disappointment in Oakland.
He was a pleasant surprise on Sunday, entering the game as the Colts' No. 3 halfback behind Donald Brown(notes) and Joseph Addai(notes) (who returned after missing eight games with nerve damage in his left shoulder to gain 45 yards on 12 carries) and likely ending it having positioned himself as the team's go-to ball carrier from here on out. His energy, teammates say, is infectious.
"At this time of year, we tend to go out and persevere when other teams fall off," Rhodes said. "It has to do with our coach; he has a real sense of when to rest us and how to keep us fresh. We have a little more bounce in our step than some other teams."
After the Raiders scored their first offensive touchdown of the game with 1:51 remaining and tight end Jacob Tamme(notes) (seven catches, 78 yards, one TD) recovered Sebastian Janikowski's(notes) onside kick, Rhodes figured he'd get three carries to try to pick up a clock-killing first down. But Manning, who completed 16 of 30 passes for a season-low 179 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, was in Secret Santa mode. As he traversed the line of scrimmage on third-and-2 and rearranged Indy's formation, Manning called an inside run to the right, then glared back at Rhodes and said, "Hide."
"I didn't know what he was talking about," Rhodes said. "I know now."
Back in 2001, the year's two-time league rushing champion Edgerrin James(notes) went down with a season-ending knee injury, Rhodes was involved in a hauntingly similar bit of Manning subterfuge during a 30-14 victory over the Buffalo Bills. In that game, Manning play-faked to the rookie tailback making his first career start and ran 33 yards for a touchdown.
The phantom handoff was equally convincing against the Raiders and, said Manning afterward, "I think it's because the line was blocking so good and Rhodes was running so well."
To say Manning appreciated the help was an understatement. For much of the 2010 season he has seemed stressed to the point of exhaustion as he tries to carry a team missing key players on offense (Dallas Clark(notes), Austin Collie(notes)) and defense (three quarters of its secondary, among others). He threw 11 interceptions during Indy's three-game losing streak and seemed to be buckling under the weight of the burden to be perfect, or pretty close to it.
As Manning concluded his postgame news conference on Sunday, I saw a tired, subdued veteran who knows he must store up energy for what would be an unlikely run through a tough AFC playoff field. Before he headed to the team bus, I asked him if he felt any of that '06 magic returning.
"I haven't really gotten into a comparison thing," he said. "We certainly knew three games ago we were 'lose one and eliminated,' and it's almost like our playoffs started then. We hoped we could win and keep improving every week. And I think we have improved the last three weeks. Hopefully, we can win again and get better and head into the playoffs on a high note."
In other words, Give me the ball, climb on my back and let me do my thing.
When you're built for torque, what other attitude is there?
THE HIGH FIVE …
• When I caught up with Tom Brady(notes) in training camp back in August, he spoke of a "heightened sense of concentration on my end" as he prepared for his 11th NFL season. How's that working out for him? On Sunday, Brady broke Bernie Kosar's league record for most consecutive passing attempts without an interception (319 and counting) and, more important, led the New England Patriots (13-2) to a 34-3 road victory over the Buffalo Bills that clinched home-field advantage in the AFC. He even outdueled Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) (two fumbles, three interceptions), something that will surely rock the world of Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs(notes), a.k.a. the president of Brady's fan club.
• In September, the Kansas City Chiefs opened their season with a 21-14 Monday-night victory over the notoriously slow-starting San Diego Chargers that was portrayed as a major upset. We now know it wasn't – the Chiefs (10-5), who'd won only 10 games over the previous three seasons, were the best team in the AFC West, and they clinched their first division title since 2003 by crushing the Titans 34-14 while the Chargers lost at Cincinnati. Scarily, with another offseason of general manager Scott Pioli's shrewd talent-acquisition touches and second-year coach Todd Haley's continued growth, this team should be really good in 2011 and beyond.
• In late October, after the Bears staggered into their bye week with three defeats in four games and severe pass-protection issues, they seemed like a team immersed in an unsalvageable fade. I'm still not convinced they're championship material, but Lovie Smith's team has some serious heart. NFC North champion Chicago (11-4) won for the seventh time in eight games on Sunday, defeating the Jets (also playoff-bound, thanks to Jacksonville's defeat) by a 38-34 score, and can clinch a first-round bye with a victory over the Packers on Sunday or an Eagles defeat in one of Philly's final two games. (A blizzard postponed the Eagles' home game against the Vikings from Sunday night to Tuesday night, and the Cowboys will visit Lincoln Financial Field five days later.) The Bears will be in a bizarre spot against the Pack at Lambeau Field next Sunday – lose the game and they'll likely host Green Bay in a rematch the following weekend. Incidentally, that would mark the second consecutive year that the Packers closed the regular season against their first-round playoff foe.
• When I spoke with Packers coach Mike McCarthy last week, he viewed the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) ("our best player") from a concussion as the ultimate Christmas gift. And after Rodgers' ridiculously good game against the visiting Giants on Sunday – 25 for 37, 404 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions in a 45-17 blowout that allowed Philly to clinch the NFC East and moved New York closer to elimination – there are a lot of NFC teams hoping the Bears knock Green Bay out of the playoffs next Sunday. The way Rodgers is playing, don't bet on it.
• Imagine how the Buccaneers felt as they shook hands with the Seahawks following their 38-15 victory at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday evening. Tampa Bay (9-6) must upset the Saints next Sunday and get some help to make the playoffs; Seattle (6-9) just has to beat the St. Louis Rams (7-8) at home to win the NFC West. "Yeah how [expletive] up is that!" Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber(notes) wrote via text. "Such is the NFL. Oh well, like Rah [coach Raheem Morris] says, it's not our problem. We win 10 and let the rest work itself out hopefully!" When I assessed the situation with Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy(notes) late Sunday night, he simply laughed and said, "Yeah – sucks for them."
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The whole foot fetish thing – but hey, that's just me.
2. Why so many of us failed to see through the Chargers' façade and realize that this team was never a legitimate contender in 2010. For all of the impressive numbers San Diego put up, and even with its history of rallying after rough beginnings under Norv Turner, losses to the Chiefs, Seahawks, Raiders (twice), Rams and Patriots should have alerted us to their shortcomings. A glaring one: Beyond quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), this team was alarmingly short on difference-makers, and halfback Ryan Mathews(notes), for whom general manager A.J. Smith traded up 16 spots to draft in the first round, certainly wasn't one as a rookie. Given that the Chargers' recent 31-0 blowout of Kansas City came when Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) was sidelined following an appendectomy, San Diego's only legitimately impressive victory was its 36-14 thrashing of the Colts in late November. Oh, and about those gaudy stats? I'd sum up the Chargers this way: First in defense, second in offense – and way back in the pack when it comes to heart, toughness, resilience and attention to detail. Needing to beat the lowly Bengals (4-11) to keep its playoff hopes alive, San Diego somehow showed up at Paul Brown Stadium in space-cadet mode, or something close to it. "I don't know how you lose focus on a game that has playoff implications," veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer(notes) told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But we did." The Bengals were surprised, too. "Maybe the cold affected them," linebacker Dhani Jones(notes) wrote via text. "West to east traverse, afternoon instead of late night. Lots of factors … But they had a lot to play for." Next Sunday in Denver, they'll be playing to pad their stats – and to derail the Tim Tebow(notes) Savior Express that some of us saw coming.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Mike Singletary began his head-coaching career with a bang, throwing tantrums and dropping trou in the 49ers' locker room. Over the next two and a half years, he was continually exposed as ill-suited to his position, a headstrong man in a headset with an inflated sense of self who seemed to think the intensity he displayed as a Hall of Fame middle linebacker could compensate for any shortcoming. On Sunday night, hours after the Niners (5-10) were eliminated from playoff contention in a 25-17 defeat to the Rams in St. Louis, Singletary was fired, leaving defensive line assistant Jim Tomsula to play head coach for next Sunday's game against the Cardinals. San Francisco president Jed York will now search for a general manager and head coach who can hopefully combine to restore some of the luster the franchise lost after his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, ceased active ownership – and move on from a well-intentioned but brutal mistake.
Singletary did some good things, such as helping to turn tight end Vernon Davis(notes) from bust-in-the-making to All-Pro, but he continually sabotaged himself by tuning out advice from knowledgeable sources (basically, anyone other than his former coach Mike Ditka) and leading like a man beholden to his mood swings. I cringed when Singletary, during the team's trip to London earlier this year, paraphrased a famous Winston Churchill World War II speech in a news conference. Similarly, his Nov. 14 appearance on Comcast Sports Bay Area's "49ers Postgame Live" following a victory over the Rams included a tough-to-stomach pronouncement that, "This is what I was created for, situations like that. It's not an accident that I'm here &hellip." Well, actually, it kind of was an accident – had Mike Nolan not been such a disaster in the first part of the 2008 season, Singletary never would have gotten the interim gig that led to another two seasons (almost) of what was ultimately a failed experiment. Predictably, he went out in a blaze of bluster, jerking around his quarterbacks, Alex and Troy Smith(notes), to the bitter end. After Troy Smith, who got the start on Sunday, threw a third-quarter interception, Singletary got in his face and told the quarterback he would be pulled as Alex Smith began warming up on the sideline. Troy Smith reacted angrily, and a conspicuous shouting match ensued. Singletary stuck with Troy Smith for another quarter before finally making the switch, and Alex Smith's late fumble helped doom the Niners. Basically, there was no plan – and any semblance of a pseudo-plan was subject to be scrapped without notice. On a positive note, he remained fully clothed after being told of his dismissal (at least, as far as we know).
TEXT/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"You probably have 31 jerseys (I know u don't have the raiders!) and u make him put each one on and you send the appropriate pic to the appropriate exec! Lol"
– Text Saturday morning from Chiefs coach Todd Haley, after receiving a photo of my 11-year-old son clad in a Dexter McCluster(notes) jersey, freshly snatched from under the tree.
"Sorry. Butt-texted you from the plane …"
– Text from Schwartz a few minutes later.