The 2009 Indianapolis Colts: Backing Down From History’s Call

The Indianapolis Colts had become a model of consistency since Peyton Manning had taken over at quarterback in 1999, but there would still be change in 2009. Tony Dungy, the head coach from 2002-08 had stepped down. Dungy reached the playoffs all seven years of his tenure and won the Super Bowl in 2006. His second-in-command, Jim Caldwell, was elevated to the top job. The 2009 Indianapolis Colts spent the season looking ready to make history, but instead shied away from greatness and ended up without even a Super Bowl ring.

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Manning would throw for over 4,500 yards and win his fourth NFL MVP award. Joseph Addai provided a solid presence at running back, going for over 800 yards. Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark each went over 1,000 yards, joining Manning and veteran center Jeff Saturday in the Pro Bowl. Pierre Garcon added 765 yards and by year’s end, Manning was developing chemistry with Austin Collie. The Indianapolis offense, per usual under Manning, was close to unstoppable.

The defense was pretty good too, ranking in the Top 10 in points allowed. The keys were on opposite ends of the defensive line. Robert Mathis had 9.5 sacks, while Dwight Freeney recorded 13.5. With teams often having to play catch-up against Manning, these two excellent pass rushers were often at liberty to tee off on the opposing quarterback. Free safety Antoine Bethea also made the Pro Bowl.

Indianapolis played three of its first five games on the road against teams who had made the playoffs in 2008. After winning the opener, they went to the Miami Dolphins, who won the AFC East the prior year when the New England Patriots had Tom Brady out for the year with a torn ACL. On the Monday Night stage, Manning hit Clark for an 80-yard touchdown pass to start the game. Then, with Miami holding a 23-20 lead, Manning hit Garcon with a 48-yard TD strike with 3:18 left to win 27-23.

Up next was the Arizona Cardinals, fresh off reaching the Super Bowl. Manning outgunned Kurt Warner in the desert, throwing three second-half touchdown passes, one apiece to Wayne, Clark and Garcon.

After a home win over the Seattle Seahawks, Indy traveled to face the Tennessee Titans. The prior year saw Tennessee edge out the Colts in the AFC South. In this game, with Indy clinging to a 14-9 lead late in the second quarter, Manning hit Collie on a 39-yard scoring pass. Then the Manning-Collie combo produced another touchdown in the third quarter and the game ended 31-9.

Indianapolis had survived what was seen as a difficult opening stretch. In the end, only Arizona, of the three 2008 playoff teams, would make it back in 2009, but the Colts’ 5-0 start against this slate certainly sent a message that there would be no backsliding just because Caldwell was in for Dungy.

The Colts rolled off three more wins and it set up a Sunday night home date with New England. The careers of Manning and Brady already seen many memorable games and more were ahead. The game in November 2009 ranks near the top of the list.

New England led 24-7 in the second quarter, 31-14 and then 34-28. Manning and Brady had traded blows, each going over 300 yards passing. The Patriots faced 4th-and-2 on their own 28-yard line with 2:08 left. In an act of supreme respect for Manning (and Brady for that matter), Patriot head coach Bill Belichick opted to go for it. Brady completed a pass to running back Kevin Faulk—but only for a yard. Manning to the ball back and promptly marched Indy to the end zone for a 35-34 win.

Indianapolis visited the Baltimore Ravens next, and it was the defense that stood tall, particularly when points were on the line. Five Baltimore scoring drives all ended in field goals, and Manning was able to score enough on the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed defense that reigned in Baltimore to pull out a 17-15 win.

Now the talk of an undefeated season was alive in Indianapolis and around the league. Even better, was the fact the New Orleans Saints were undefeated in the NFC, and the ultimate Super Bowl battle of the unbeaten was alive and well.

Indianapolis won four straight games against non-playoff teams and reached 14-0. The Saints had lost their 14th game of their year. The Colts had the chance to make history. It was something the Patriots had at least partially done in 2007 when they became the first team in NFL history to go 16-0. But the Pats had come up one game short in the Super Bowl. Indy had the chance to do both.

But with history knocking on the door, the Colts declined to answer. Manning was pulled midway through the penultimate game of the regular season, against the New York Jets. He sat again the following week in Buffalo. The Colts lost both games, preferring to stay healthy for the AFC playoffs, in which they still held the #1 seed.

A rematch with the Ravens was up first. The Colts were a solid 6.5 point favorite and they looked the part in a Saturday night game. It was 3-3 after a quarter, but then Manning threw touchdown passes to Collie and Wayne. The Indy defense completely owned Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, and they shut down the Raven running game. The 20-3 final meant that Indianapolis had not allowed a touchdown to Baltimore in two games.

The following day, Indianapolis had gotten a break. The NFL world was anticipating an Indy-San Diego matchup in the AFC Championship Game. The Chargers were playing extremely well, were the #2 seed, and what’s more, they seemed to have the Colts’ number. San Diego had spoiled another Indianapolis undefeated season in December 2005, and had knocked the Colts out of the playoffs each of the previous two years.

But the Chargers couldn’t handle prosperity in 2009 and they were upset by the Jets. First-year head coach Rex Ryan and his rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez, would be coming to the Midwest for the AFC Championship Game.

For the first half, it didn’t look like avoiding the Bolts had been much of a break. Sanchez threw two touchdown passes, including an 80-yard strike to Braylon Edwards and New York led 17-6. But Manning cut the lead to 17-13 by half with a 16-yard scoring pass to Collie.

The Indy defense got in takeover mode and the Jets didn’t have the kind of offensive explosion that the Chargers would have brought to this game. Manning would finish with 377 yards passing and threw two more touchdown passes in the second half. Addai finished with 80 yards rushing. The Jets never could get a run game going and they never scored again. Indianapolis won 30-17 and was on their way to the Super Bowl.

New Orleans was waiting, and even though Indianapolis was a five-point favorite, it wasn’t going to be their night. The Colts built up a 10-0 lead, but the Saints got a couple field goals and then surprised everyone with a successful onside kick to start the second half. They led 24-17 late in the game when Manning drove Indy towards a tying score. But the MVP finally got beat, as Tracy Porter intercepted a pass, took it 74 yards for a touchdown and Indianapolis lost 31-17.

The 2009 Indianapolis Colts only lost one game in which they were actually trying to win. Unfortunately, that game was the Super Bowl. They might have at least gone down in history as a team that went 16-0, something that remains an amazing accomplishment in a parity-driven NFL. By turning down that chance, they became just another one of the very good teams not to end up winning the Super Bowl. Indianapolis chose not to answer history’s call, and history took its revenge.