INDIANAPOLIS – As a wideout who has spent his entire nine-year career catching passes from Peyton Manning(notes), the NFL's most prickly perfectionist, Reggie Wayne(notes) is well-versed in finding flaws with even the most impressive of victories.
Yet after the Indianapolis Colts sweated out a missed 42-yard Kris Brown(notes) field goal as time expired to defeat the Houston Texans 20-17 at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, Wayne wasn't at all apologetic about a triumph that, in some ways, was as ugly as the 16-yard floater he served up for Texans safety Bernard Pollard(notes) to kill a crucial fourth-quarter drive.
"I'll take an ugly win over a pretty loss every [expletive] time," the Pro Bowl receiver said after Indy improved to 8-0. "I ain't trippin' at all, high standards or not. Hey, you've got high standards for the female you choose, too – but sometimes, you know, you just end up making a choice."
Whatever you think of Wayne's choice of analogies, it's tough to argue with his central premise. In the eye of any beholder, the first half of the Colts' 2009 regular season has been a beautiful one. After running its all-time record against the Texans (5-4) to 14-1, Indy all but wrapped up the AFC South title and remained one of the NFL's two undefeated teams, joining the New Orleans Saints.
Next Sunday night at the same stadium, Manning and fellow future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady(notes) will renew the preeminent individual rivalry of their era as the Colts and AFC East-leading New England Patriots (6-2) get the second half of the season started in style.
Given the unnerving offseason that began with last January's retirement of coach Tony Dungy and the promotion of the untested Jim Caldwell to succeed him, Indy's first half has been truly remarkable.
The Colts had a history of strong openings under Dungy, winning their first 13 games in '05 and their first nine the following season en route to the lone Super Bowl championship of the Manning era. Caldwell, who on Sunday tied Potsy Clark of the 1931 Portsmouth Spartans for the best-ever start by a rookie NFL coach, has continued the trend thus far.
Give the man credit: If anything, Caldwell has been even more aggressive than his predecessor, a trait that served the Colts well on both sides of the ball in Sunday's game. He and his new defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, have had Indy blitz more frequently than did Dungy's teams, which mostly sat back in the Tampa 2 defense and tried to keep opponents from connecting on big plays.
The Colts were pleasantly proactive with 2:20 remaining in Sunday's game. Trailing by three, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub(notes) went back to pass on second-and-10 and was pressured by blitzing inside linebacker Gary Brackett(notes), who had slipped free after defensive tackle Antonio Johnson(notes) picked off a Houston lineman by design. Brackett hit Schaub's arm as the quarterback rushed a throw that was intercepted by linebacker Clint Session(notes), one of the survivors on a banged-up unit that lost three players (former All-Pro safety Bob Sanders(notes), cornerback Marlin Jackson(notes) and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler(notes)) to season-ending injuries last week alone.
Mindful that he's starting two rookies at cornerback while Kelvin Hayden(notes) recovers from a knee injury that could keep him out the rest of the month, Caldwell protected his secondary by using Manning to attack Houston's.
The reigning league MVP went after the Texans' defense as if the opening kickoff was the start of the Indy 500. Running a hurry-up attack from the first snap, Manning threw 25 passes in the first quarter – the highest opening-quarter total since the NFL began recording those stats in 1991 – and 40 by halftime, completing 26, including 10 to tight end Dallas Clark(notes).
By halftime, Clark was ready for a shower.
"It did feel like [we'd played] a whole game, that's for sure," said Clark, who finished with 119 yards on 14 receptions, one shy of the league's single-game record for tight ends. "We've had some long quarters and halves around here, but that tops 'em all.
"That was something you can't really get in shape for – that's what we were really trying to do, wear them out. Give them credit. They didn't go anywhere. They hung with us."
The Texans stayed in the game by limiting Indy to a single first-half touchdown in six trips into Houston territory. Twice they held the Colts to Matt Stover(notes) field goals; they also got stops on fourth-and-1 and third-and-1 (the latter forcing a punt) and the first of two interceptions by Pollard. Brown's 56-yard field goal on the final play of the half brought the Texans to within 13-3, and Houston mounted long touchdown drives on its first two possessions after intermission, going up 17-13 on Steve Slaton's(notes) one-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
At that point, it looked like Indy's now-17-game regular-season winning streak was in jeopardy. The Colts prevailed because Manning (34-of-50, 318 yards, one TD) drove them down the field when he needed to, with Indy going ahead on Joseph Addai's(notes) two-yard touchdown run with 7:16 remaining.
Yet this victory was far from smooth:
• On the drive before the one that produced the winning points, the Colts had first-and-10 at the Houston 40-yard line when Caldwell gave the green light to a play-call that took the ball out of Manning's hands. In fairness, the same strategy had worked the previous week when Addai threw the winning touchdown to Wayne in an 18-14 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. This time, Manning handed the ball on an end-around to Wayne, who pulled up near the right sideline and hesitated before lobbing a ball toward wideout Pierre Garcon(notes) that Pollard easily picked off. "I tried to throw it out of bounds, but that [expletive] just didn't go far enough," Wayne said. "It was a little duck. I should've thrown it to the person in the front row.
• The Colts got a huge break late in the first half when Houston halfback Ryan Moats(notes) took a short pass and rambled to the Indy 1, where he was hit by Colts safety Antoine Bethea(notes) and fell to the turf, losing the ball near the sideline. Moats was ruled down-by-contact, setting up a second-and-goal, but instead of running another play Texans coach Gary Kubiak allowed the clock to run down to the two-minute warning. With ample time to digest the replays, someone on the Indy sideline advised Caldwell to challenge, and the replay official ruled that the ball had been fumbled into the end zone for a touchback.
• The Texans were called for 13 penalties to four for the Colts, and three of Indy's four scoring drives were aided by Houston infractions. That's not a disparity a team can count on from week-to-week.
Realistically, this was the type of game the Manning-era Colts have often found a way to pull out during the regular season but which hasn't counted much toward predicting postseason success. That's yet another reason it's hard to get excited about their 17-game "winning streak," which is four short of the all-time record set by the Patriots between 2006-08 – for it's not a 17-game winning streak at all.
For that reason Manning, whose single-minded mission is to try to get the Colts to the point where they can prevail in such circumstances, was far from celebratory after Sunday's game. Wearing only a towel, he sat on a bench in the middle of the locker room talking over the game with receivers coach Clyde Christensen for a long time before showering and conducting his postgame news conference, where he predictably talked about how much more Indy needs to keep improving.
"We scored enough to win, but obviously we had to have some help from the defense," Manning said. "We need to do our part better and score some more points. Obviously, it wasn't perfect."
But the Colts still are, and there's no shame in that, no matter how high they set the standards.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Did I write off the Chargers prematurely for a third consecutive year? The honest answer: Maybe. In a fantastic finish that spoke to the emerging stardom of quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), San Diego (5-3) won its third consecutive game – and its first over an opponent with a winning record – by pulling out a 21-20 road victory over the New York Giants (5-4). Given an opening by a confluence of good fortune that included a conservative third-and-goal call by Giants coach Tom Coughlin, Rivers took over at his own 20 with 2:07 remaining and a six-point deficit. The sixth-year quarterback, playing against the team that traded him to San Diego for Eli Manning(notes) during draft weekend in '04, connected on six of eight passes, most notably a brilliant 21-yard strike over the middle to halfback Darren Sproles(notes) and a willowy 18-yard touchdown toss to Vincent Jackson(notes) in the right corner of the end zone with 21 seconds remaining. It was Rivers' 11th career fourth-quarter comeback victory, and it was quite possibly his finest regular-season moment as a pro. There will be many more, perhaps in the very near future. Suddenly, the AFC West looks competitive again, especially if the Broncos (6-1) lose to the Steelers on Monday night. San Diego travels to Invesco Field in two weeks for a rematch with Denver, and an upset victory on the road no longer seems implausible.
• Just as I predicted, the Dallas Cowboys went into Philadelphia and showed their mettle in defeating the Eagles. Unfortunately, that prediction was made last December before the two teams met in the regular season finale, and I was just a tiny bit off. (OK, I was 38 points off.) The '09 Cowboys are clearly a tougher team, however, and Dallas (6-2) took control of the NFC East – for now, at least – with a 20-16 victory at Philly (5-3) Sunday night. The winning points came on a Tony Romo(notes) pass to Miles Austin(notes) after a cold pump fake from the quarterback, but this was a full-team effort. Even Roy Williams (five catches, 75 yards) looked like an elite receiver at times. There's still plenty of time for the Cowboys to implode, but there's a distinct possibility it won't happen.
• OK, sports fans, it's time to wrap your heads around a concept most of you never saw coming: Cincinnati Bengals, Super Bowl contenders. The Bengals' 17-7 victory over the Ravens gave them a 6-2 record at the halfway point of the season, and one of those defeats came on a fluke catch off a deflected pass by the Broncos' Brandon Stokley(notes) in the season opener. On Sunday Cincinnati completed a season sweep of Baltimore (4-4), an AFC championship game participant last January, and Ray Lewis(notes) was not part of the best defense on the field. The Queen City has become Shutdown City: Consider that in six games against other opponents in '09, the Ravens are averaging 30.8 points per game. Baltimore scored 21 in two games against the Bengals, and seven of those came on an interception return for a touchdown. Playing in what might be the NFL's toughest division, Cincinnati has a 4-0 record against AFC North opponents, including a victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. Next Sunday's rematch at Heinz Field should be a highly charged and illuminating battle between two teams that will likely battle it out into December and beyond. And yes, wideout Chad Ochocinco(notes), who last week mailed deodorant to Lewis and some of his fellow Ravens defenders, has another stunt planned for this week. "Wait ‘till you see what I send the Steelers," he said via text message Sunday night.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Last week, I told you the Green Bay Packers weren't ready for prime time. On Sunday, they looked like a bunch of miscast actors on a low-rated show headed for cancellation. Playing the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay (4-4) allowed the Bucs (1-7) to stay in the game via a blocked punt for touchdown, an 83-yard kickoff return and an Aaron Rodgers(notes) interception that set up an early TD – and, in the end, let Josh Freeman(notes), a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start, produce the big plays in a 38-28 victory. "[Expletive] that was rough," inside linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) wrote via text message Sunday night. Yeah it was. Conversely, it was a great day for the home team and rookie coach Raheem Morris, who got his first career victory. Wearing their retro Creamsicle jerseys, the Bucs and their frustrated fans partied like it was 1979, as they should have. The Packers, meanwhile, flew back to Titletown wondering if they can regroup, with the Cowboys coming to Lambeau Field next Sunday. This embarrassing defeat will either go down as the game that compelled the Packers to break out of their funk, or as the moment it officially sunk in that this team is a fraud.
• Speaking of frauds, the Chicago Bears (4-4) were embarrassed for the second time in three weeks, as only a late rally made their 41-21 home defeat to the Arizona Cardinals even semi-respectable. (Yep, Jay Cutler was right. And how about a special round of applause for once-prominent defensive tackle Tommie Harris(notes), who was ejected on the Cards' opening possession after slugging guard Deuce Lutui(notes) in the head? Two weeks ago, coach Lovie Smith benched Harris for a game in an attempt to motivate the three-time Pro Bowl selection. Apparently Harris is determined to go down swinging; it looks like his run as a productive player in Chicago may be finished. All of which means that the Vikings (7-1), who had the weekend off, no longer have to stress out about winning the NFC North; Minnesota can focus on competing with the Saints, Cowboys and Cards for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
• The only decent news for the Bears is that their next opponent is struggling just as much. On Thursday Chicago will face the 49ers at Candlestick Park, where Mike Singletary's team suffered its fourth consecutive defeat on Sunday to drop to 3-5. San Francisco's 34-27 loss to the Titans (2-6) had some ominous overtones: In his second game since replacing Shaun Hill(notes) as the team's starting quarterback, Alex Smith threw three interceptions, fumbled twice (losing one) and absorbed four sacks. And Singletary, after espousing a run-first philosophy all offseason, seemed to usher in a shift Sunday with a heavy reliance on the spread offense and a pass-run ratio of more than 2:1. Whatever their identity, the Niners still have the talent to compete for a playoff spot. Their next four games, before a rematch at Candlestick with a Cards team they beat in the season opener: Chicago, at Green Bay, Jacksonville, at Seattle. If the 49ers can win three of those (and I think they can), they're back in business.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The utter uselessness of the touch screens in the lobby of the O'Hare Airport Hilton, which are theoretically supposed to provide flight information – kind of an important thing for travelers like me who plan to walk to the gate immediately after checking out. It would have been great Sunday morning if at least one of the screens was actually responsive – and even better if the old airline-specific, much-lower-tech screens had been there instead. Sometimes technology does not help the ballclub. Perhaps the most incomprehensible thing of all: I spent seven minutes trying to navigate my way through the damn screens early Sunday morning before giving up and winging it. I had to make several choices between the lobby and my United flight to Indy, and fortunately I guessed right every time.
2. Why Browns owner Randy Lerner reportedly views Mike Holmgren as some sort of franchise savior. I could see if Lerner thought hiring Holmgren as head coach was a good idea – the man took the Packers to a pair of Super Bowls and guided the Seahawks to another four seasons ago, so he obviously has skills in that capacity. But football czar? Really? Am I the only one who remembers that Holmgren's franchise-building credentials aren't especially impressive? For those with short memories: After forcing his way out of Green Bay, where Ron Wolf was perhaps the game's most-respected general manager, Holmgren arrived in Seattle amid much fanfare and was known as The Big Show because, as coach, GM and executive vice president of football operations, he was the unquestioned boss of everyone. And he kind of sucked at it until he was embarrassingly stripped of his GM title following the 2003 season – at which point, coincidentally or otherwise, he suddenly became much more successful as the Seahawks' coach. And yet, apparently, none of that ever happened – and it looks like Big Show II might be playing in Cleveland come 2010. Oh well – I guess Lerner, as usual, is one step ahead of the rest of us.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Is Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes) experiencing problems with the imaginary friend who lives in his helmet? That's my theory after he capped a ridiculous week by starting a bunch of drama on the Falcons' sidelines in his team's 31-17 defeat at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, then had the gall to whine that Atlanta coach Mike Smith had "put his hands on me in a harmful way." Cue the violins. I've repeatedly watched the video of the incident, which began after Redskins safety LaRon Landry(notes) put a late hit on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) on the Atlanta sideline, and I'm having a really hard time believing that Hall's planned complaint to the NFL about Smith will be met by anything but laughter.
Some other points about what went down: 1) The opposing sideline is off-limits; even Landry had the good sense to leave after his cheap shot on Ryan. Hall made a point of coming over and getting involved, and then he acted surprised that former teammates and others wanted him gone. 2) Yeah, Smith was angry and had some words for Hall, and let's see if DeAngelo can guess why. I can: Smith and the general manager who hired him, Thomas Dimitroff, have a strong relationship, and the Atlanta coach wasn't pleased last week when Hall, whom the Falcons traded to the Raiders in March 2008, publicly called Dimitroff a liar. Given Dimitroff's impeccable reputation and the laughable notion that he'd have promised a volatile personality like Hall that he'd rework the player's contract, I'm going to conclude that Hall is being a bit delusional here. In any event, his blatant disrespect for Dimitroff absolutely incited Smith, and Hall shouldn't be surprised that there's a connection. 3) If Hall actually believes the Falcons should have signed him to a long-term contract, could he have possibly illustrated any more clearly on Sunday why that would have been a bad idea? 4) Finally, what is Hall, of all people, complaining about? No, he didn't get his long-term deal with the Falcons, but he got a sweet contract upgrade (seven years, $70 million) from the Raiders in conjunction with the trade – and then, after Oakland cut him eight underwhelming games in the '08 season, pocketed $8 million for his trouble. A few days later Hall signed with the Redskins for the veteran minimum and finished out the season. In February, Washington gave him a six-year, $54-million deal that included $22.5 million in guaranteed money. It's quite possible that no player in football has received so much for doing so little. For that reason, the only thing Hall should've been doing on the Falcons' sidelines was hugging Smith, kissing him on the forehead and saying, "Tell Thomas that's from me, and I love him." Alas, I'm pretty sure his imaginary friend wouldn't have approved.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"That's my greatest asset – u know that!"
– Text Sunday night from Kurt Warner(notes) regarding his bounce-back performance (five touchdown passes) in Chicago after last Sunday's six-turnover debacle vs. Carolina in Arizona.
"I hope Jahvid is going to be OK, our prayers are with him. See you in 2 weeks."
– Text Sunday evening from Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, still glowing from his team's 51-42 upset of Oregon Saturday but mindful of the scary head injury suffered by Cal star Jahvid Best later that afternoon in a 31-14 defeat to Oregon State. (And who says we can't all get along two weeks before Big Game?)
"Don't make so much noise tonight. Some of us like to sleep."
– Text Friday from Jon Gruden after reading in The Gameface that I'd be returning to Indy, where I provoked him into earning the nickname "Harvey Wallbanger."
- Jim Caldwell