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January 2, 2000
Revenge of the Backup QB
Johnson Leads Bills to 31-6 Blowout Over Colts
By Mike Devitt
In the past few years, the Indianapolis Colts have fallen into the nasty habit of making second-string quarterbacks look like first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. Such no-names as Vince Evans, Sean Salisbury and Scott Zolak have all had career days against Indianapolis, giving these backups their 15 minutes of fame at the Colts' expense.
Now Colts fans can add Rob Johnson to that list.
Making his first start of the season against the Colts -- a team which needed a victory in order to have a chance at earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs -- Johnson shook of the dust and rust of inactivity to lead the Buffalo Bills to a 31-6 victory over the Colts before a crowd of 61,959 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Johnson shredded the Indianapolis defense by connecting on 11 of 12 passes for 167 yards in the first half. He finished the game by completing 24 of 32 passes for 287 yards, with touchdown passes to Peerless Price and Bobby Collins.
Johnson's passing was balanced out by Buffalo's running attack, which combined for 135 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns by Antowain Smith and Jonathan Linton. In all, Buffalo generated a season-high 422 yards of offense compared to just 226 yards for the Colts, their lowest offensive output of the year.
"They got it going early, and they didn't stop," said kicker Mike Vanderjagt, whose two field goals amounted to the only scoring for Indianapolis on Sunday. "Rob Johnson had a pretty good day, and their defense stepped it up and played well, and we just couldn't get anything going."
"We certainly got our tail handed to us today," added head coach Jim Mora. "Buffalo came out and right from the get-go pretty much dominated the game throughout. Defensively, we couldn't stop them at all the first half."
The Best Laid Plans
The Colts appeared every bit the AFC East champions that they are early in the game, taking the opening drive 72 yards in 10 plays. Quarterback Peyton Manning completed passes to four different receivers, while Edgerrin James rushed three times for five yards before the drive stalled at the Buffalo nine-yard line. Mike Vanderjagt's 27-yard attempt then sailed through the uprights, giving Indianapolis an early 3-0 lead.
Unfortunately, it was the last time the Colts would have the lead, and one of the few times that Indianapolis actually looked fluid on offense. With the less mobile Johnson at the helm, and with starting center Jerry Ostroski inactive because of a knee injury, the Bills altered their offensive scheme by using a more flexible passing pocket, with Johnson rolling out to gain more time to throw.
Knowing that Ostroski's injury could have a big impact on the team's running game, the Bills also designed more of their running plays to go outside the tackles, where the Colts had a pair of undersized ends in Mark Thomas and Bernard Whittington. The idea was that the Bills' bigger offensive linemen would occupy Thomas and Whittington, thus opening up enough holes for the tandem of Smith and Linton to run through.
The revised game plan worked even better than Buffalo's fans could have hoped for. The Bills scored on all three of their first-half possessions, wearing out the Colts' defense by racking up scoring drives of 83, 80 and 82 yards and averaging more than nine yards per play in the first and second quarters.
The Bills' defense played equally tough against Indianapolis in the first half. Although they allowed the Colts to drive deep within Buffalo territory twice, the team gave up only a pair of Mike Vanderjagt field goals. And while they were unable to sack Peyton Manning, they knocked away six of his passes and treated both he and backup Steve Walsh as if they were a pair of tackling dummies.
"They were able to use that dominating defense that they have to tee off and come after us," said team president Bill Polian. "We did a pretty poor job of handling them. We got our quarterbacks knocked around and things of that nature, which will happen when the game swings in a road situation like that, but we've got to get better and learn from it."
Indianapolis appeared to mount a defensive charge of their own at the start of the third quarter, forcing the Bills to go three-and-out on their first drive and creating a Buffalo punt on their second drive. But the team was unable to do anything offensively in the second half, generating just four first downs and making it into Buffalo territory only once.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, Walsh had replaced Manning at quarterback, conceding the victory to Buffalo and saving the team's starters for a possible rematch in the postseason. For Manning, it marked the second consecutive game that he had been held without a touchdown pass. Although he completed a respectable 18 of 29 passes, he was held to a season-low 163 passing yards.
The team's other offensive stars struggled as well. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who entered the game with a league-high 111 catches, was held to five receptions for 51 yards, his second-lowest yardage total of the season. And James mustered just 50 yards on 18 carries, his lowest total since he was held to 46 against the San Diego Chargers in the third game of the year.
"Buffalo had a really good plan to attack our defense, and did a good job doing it," added Polian. "And their defense, which is dominating at home absolutely dominated us. They won the battles."
"We didn't get it done, so we've got to work hard to improve that."
Adding Injury to Insult
As if a 25-point loss to end the season wasn't bad enough, the Colts also lost two of their best defensive players -- linebacker Cornelius Bennett and interior lineman Ellis Johnson -- with knee injuries. The status of each player was not known immediately after the game.
"All I know is they're both limping around in the locker room," Mora said in a postgame interview. "I don't know what the prognosis is. I would guess that Cornelius' is probably more serious than Ellis'. Ellis' is just a pulled muscle, in the calf up by the knee area. He didn't structurally hurt his knee or anything."
Bennett, meanwhile, was hit on the knee on a run by Antowain Smith on the Colts' first defensive play of the game. Polian stated that tests will be run on Monday to determine the status of Bennett's knee.
"We're going to need an MRI," Polian said. "That will get done tomorrow, and we'll discuss it among the medical people, and Jim and I and Cornelius, tomorrow afternoon. It's very early yet without the results of the MRI to have any idea what the prognosis might be."
* With seven tackles (five solo), linebacker Mike Peterson finished the regular season as the team leader with a total of 105. Each of the team's top three tacklers this season -- Peterson, Bennett and Michael Barber -- are linebackers.
* Running back Edgerrin James' 50 yards rushing gave him a total of 1,553 on the season, tops in the NFL. In the process, he became the first rookie to lead the league in rushing since Eric Dickerson in 1983. James also finished with 62 receptions for 586 yards, three short of the club rookie record of 65 receptions set by Bill Brooks in 1986.
* A pair of ex-Colts played vital roles in the Eagles' 38-31 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. Safety Tim Hauck, who started seven games at free safety for the Colts last season, had a forced fumble and the first interception of his ten-year career. Small, meanwhile, tied a season high with six catches for 98 yards and a touchdown for Philadelphia.
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Mike Devitt is a reporter for AllSports.com. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.