There was no sign of rust on the Indianapolis Colts. But there was plenty of heart on display in Saturday night’s 20-3 playoff victory over visiting Baltimore. Indianapolis showcased a dominant defense, efficient offense and the kind of hustle that answered any questions about whether the Colts would be sluggish coming off a first-round bye and lackluster end to the regular season. The effort was reflected on a third-quarter play that effectively doomed any chance of a Ravens comeback.
Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon — a Haitian-American thrust into the national media spotlight because of the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince — sprinted about 40 yards downfield to punch the football out of Baltimore safety Ed Reed’s hands during an interception return.
The Colts recovered. The Ravens never did.
“He took a touchdown away from me,” said Garcon, the intended target on the play. “I had to get it back.”
The Colts (15-2) had to regain the momentum lost in mid-December. That was when coach Jim Caldwell crushed his team’s chances for a perfect season by yanking starters during a Week 16 loss to the New York Jets. He played reserves again the following week in a loss at Buffalo.
Neither game affected his team’s postseason standing. But Caldwell’s approach was heavily second-guessed by fans and media over the past three weeks, especially because Indianapolis had a 0-3 record as the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The decision also dashed any chance Caldwell had of scoring NFL Coach of the Year honors, which were announced Saturday morning.
Not to slight a deserving winner in Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, but it appears most of the 50 Associated Press voters used their ballots to express disapproval with Caldwell’s handling of the Jets game. How else does the first rookie coach in NFL history to win his first 14 games on the team that had the best regular-season record finish in fourth place?
History, though, will be much kinder to Caldwell because of Saturday night’s outcome. The Colts used the end of the regular season and bye to rest injured and ailing players. Caldwell also handled postseason preparation differently from predecessor Tony Dungy during last week’s three practices. The Colts matched their starting units against each other, rather than spending sessions preparing for three potential second-round opponents.
“Oftentimes, what you lose is game speed, particularly when the (scout) teams are going off cards because they don’t know that particular offense or defense as well,” Caldwell said. “When you work (starters vs. starters), they know the system, and you really do get the game speed except for the hitting.”
On that front, Caldwell had nothing to worry about Saturday night. The Colts defense had the kind of stout performance normally given by the Ravens. Baltimore’s only points came on its first possession, as Indianapolis took a 17-3 halftime lead. The Ravens’ vaunted rushing attack produced a modest 87 yards, forcing Joe Flacco to try to pick up the slack. The second-year quarterback failed miserably, throwing two interceptions in a 189-yard passing effort. Flacco also got little help from his supporting cast. Wide receiver Demetrius Williams dropped a fourth-down pass in the third quarter, and running back Ray Rice fumbled on the next series. Both gaffes happened inside Colts territory.
“We were ready to hit somebody,” said Colts defensive end Raheem Brock, who forced the Rice turnover. “We hadn’t hit anybody in two weeks. Everybody came out excited.”
Combined with New Orleans’ home rout of Arizona earlier in the day, the NFL’s top two playoff seeds have advanced to the conference title games for the first time since 2004. The Colts had squandered the edge that comes with having a first-round bye and home-field advantage in both 1999 and 2005.
As the quarterback for both of those losses, Peyton Manning was well aware of the outside doubt that enveloped his team.
“I’ve never thought it was necessarily where you’re playing or when you’re playing. It’s about executing on that day,” said Manning, who had two touchdowns in a 30-of-44, 246-yard outing. “I don’t think it matters if you had a bye or you’re playing home or away. We’ve proven in the past that we’re able to win on the road.
“I know there was this myth that you can’t win at home after a bye week, but I didn’t believe in it. I just thought the games we (lost) we just didn’t play good enough and got beat. Today, we played better than Baltimore.”
The next challenge is playing better than the winner of Sunday’s San Diego-New York Jets contest. By prevailing at home in next Sunday’s AFC championship game, Indianapolis would return to South Florida — the same site where the 2006 Colts won Super Bowl XLI.
That Indianapolis squad needed to win three playoff games — including two on the road — for a Super Bowl berth. After Saturday night, the obstacles aren’t nearly as daunting now on this yellow brick road the Colts have paved toward another Lombardi Trophy.
“This team has been able to adjust under any circumstances — short weeks, long weeks, different locations, time zones,” Caldwell said. “They’ve been able to do it and do it well. This is a pretty special unit.”