Indianapolis Colts in Playoffs Again

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Here they are again.

An Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired Sunday gave the Indianapolis Colts a 23-20 victory against Tennessee at Lucas Oil Stadium, a 10-6 record in 2010, the AFC South title and the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Colts, who tied the Dallas Cowboys’ long-standing record by securing their ninth consecutive postseason berth, will play host to the New York Jets at 8 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game.

Indianapolis is not unaccustomed to being the No. 3 seed in the AFC; the Colts began the playoffs from that slot in 2003 and 2004 before season-ending losses to New England and won the Super Bowl from the third seed in the 2006 postseason.

What the franchise — or maybe just everyone else — might have been unaccustomed to was the way Indy had to get there. So much of what the Colts did down the stretch to ultimately wind up in their familiar position was quite unconventional when considering the team’s history over the last decade.

Let’s look more closely:

  • The Colts have already been in playoff mode for a month. Sitting at 6-6 after a Week 13 home loss to Dallas — the defeat capped a three-game losing streak in which quarterback Peyton Manning threw 11 interceptions — Indy’s playoffs began four weeks early. We’re used to seeing the Colts rest starters in the final two or three weeks of the regular season after hot starts allowed them to lock up their playoff seeds well in advance of January. This year, however, Indy had to reel off four straight wins to return to the postseason, making each of the Colts’ games from that point forward meaningful. Manning and the front-line players had to play all the way through Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal Sunday to ensure the No. 3 seed (though Jacksonville’s loss to Houston a little while earlier sewed up the division). Interestingly enough, the last time the franchise had to play through the last week of the regular season to maximize its playoff position was 2006, the year the Colts won Super Bowl XLI.
  • The team has undergone something of an identity shift. We’ve heard about the Colts’ struggles to defend the run for years, and the team has found its own rushing attack largely ineffective for the last three seasons. For much of 2010, that was the case as the Colts’ rush offense ranked dead last in the league and their run defense didn’t rank that much higher. However, in the final three contests, Indy gained rushing totals of 155, 191 and 101 yards against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tennessee, respectively — all teams with highly regarded running games — and held each under 100 yards rushing (the Jaguars managed 67 yards on the ground; the Raiders gained 80 and the Titans earned 51). Manning, who finished the season with a record 450 completions and a career-high 4,700 passing yards — threw for less than 300 yards in each of those games. If these dimensions stick around for the Colts, it will greatly boost their chances at a playoff run, especially since the team will be without its two security blankets in the passing game, tight end Dallas Clark and receiver Austin Collie. One more note here: running back Dominic Rhodes, who was signed shortly before the Colts’ game at Tennessee on Dec. 9, has been sensational in his third stint in Indy (minus his fourth-quarter fumble Sunday that nearly cost the team the game), leading the Colts in rushing in their last two games with with 98 and 48 yards, respectively.

An observation I thought was quite interesting was that of Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz after the Oakland game. Kravitz said that the Colts played a game that was rendered meaningless after Jacksonville lost earlier like it meant everything. The final week brought forth an almost identical situation, and yet Indy paid no attention to what was happening outside Lucas Oil Stadium. It was clear on the players’ faces Sunday that they wanted to win and get themselves into the playoffs.

And that they did. Even after such a trying season for the Colts and for Peyton Manning individually, here they are again.

–Drew Allen

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