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December 19, 1999
Celebration in Circle City
Colts Win Tenth Straight to Wrap Up AFC East Title
By Mike Devitt
According to most calendars, Christmas occurs on the 25th of December. For the 57,013 fans who packed the RCA Dome to watch the Indianapolis Colts play the Washington Redskins on Sunday, however, their Christmas present arrived six days early.
With a 24-21 victory over the Redskins, the Colts clinched their first AFC East championship since 1987, earning a first-round bye in the postseason and guaranteeing a playoff game in Indianapolis for the first time in franchise history. The Colts also tied a league record in the process, becoming just the third team in NFL history to win nine more games than they had their previous season.
As usual, it was the Colts three-headed monster of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison that shouldered the brunt of the team's offense, combining for a total of 379 yards. Manning completed 23 of 37 passes for 298 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Harrison caught nine passes for 117 yards, and James added 148 yards rushing and receiving.
On defense, the Colts' pass rush continued to return to life, sacking the Redskins' Brad Johnson four times and allowing Washington to convert only three of 13 opportunities on third down. More importantly, the defense made their most significant plays at the game's most important times, blocking a field goal in the fourth quarter and denying the Redskins on fourth down twice to preserve the victory.
"It felt good to get the win," said tight end Ken Dilger, who caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown. Following the game, Dilger credited his teammates and the team's fans for their support in making it back to the playoffs. "The whole organization worked so hard to get here. We got here, and now we're going to enjoy it."
"It's such a wonderful feeling to reach this milestone, especially when we had to struggle so hard to get there," added general manager Bill Polian. "But we've reached the milestone. We've gotten the bye. We've won the division championship. We now have a ticket to the dance that's an awfully successful season, and obviously a magic season."
Offense Commits Costly First-Half Turnovers
Things didn't look all that magical for the Colts in the first half, as the team committed three turnovers, two of which occurred in the opposition's red zone. On the Colts' first possession, running back Edgerrin James and receiver Marvin Harrison fumbled the ball on consecutive plays deep in Redskin territory. Washington's Darrell Green picked up Harrison's fumble at the Redskin three-yard line, killing the Colts' first scoring drive. The Redskins were unable to do anything with the ball, however, and were forced to punt after going three-and-out.
Indianapolis broke onto the scoreboard first with their next possession, as the Colts marched 54 yards on six plays for the game's first touchdown. After a personal foul on the Redskins' Kennard Lang kept the Indianapolis drive alive, Peyton Manning found James along the sideline, who made an amazing one-handed catch good for 37 yards and a 7-0 Colts lead.
"He just makes some marvelous plays," Polian said when asked about James' catch. "(It was) a great throw, an incredible catch, and incredible balance to stay in bounds and make the play for a touchdown."
The Colts would commit two other turnovers in the first half, ending a pair of potential scoring drives that could have put the game away early. After a field goal by the Redskins' Brett Conway cut the Indianapolis lead to 7-3 late in the first quarter, the Colts appeared to be headed for another touchdown on their next possession, with Manning completing passes to Harrison, Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger and driving to the Washington 35-yard line.
Two plays later, however, the drive ended when Manning was sacked on a blitz by cornerback Mark McMillan, causing a fumble which was recovered by Washington's Sam Shade. Brad Johnson then connected with Albert Connell on a 48-yard touchdown pass, giving Washington a 10-7 lead.
Indianapolis tied the game at 10 with a 43-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt, but the Redskins marched right back downfield, grinding up 66 yards in 19 plays to take a 13-10 lead. Once again, the Colts appeared ready to take the lead, racing 50 yards on six consecutive pass plays, but with the ball on the Washington 16-yard line, Manning's pass was tipped and intercepted by Shawn Barber in the end zone.
"The first half was not a very impressive performance," said head coach Jim Mora. "The three turnovers really hurt. We had some critical penalties, didn't run very well, (and) didn't stop the run very well."
"B" Team Plays "A" Game in Second Half
Of the 11 starters on the Colts' defense, a total of five -- Michael Barber, Jason Belser, Cornelius Bennett, Chad Bratzke and Jeff Burris -- have last names that start with the letter B. Three other defenders -- Tony Blevins, Bert Berry and Shane Bonham -- have all seen time on the playing field. Although the national media has yet to come up with a catchy nickname for them, some critics have begun calling the Colts defense the "B" team -- not because of their names, but because of their shaky performances.
With the Colts trailing 13-10 at halftime, Bennett decided to put an end to such nonsesne, calling his teammates together and delivering a speech that brought everyone's goals back into focus. "I told the guys, `Let's stop thinking about winning the AFC East championship. Let's just go out and beat the Washington Redskins. If we beat Washington, the championship will take care of itself.'"
Bennett's speech produced the effect the Colts' coaching staff was looking for. In the second half, the defense began playing tighter, forcing Washington into more passing situations which resulted in longer third-down attempts for the Redskins. They also put more pressure on quarterback Brad Johnson, sacking him three times and allowing him to complete only 11 of 23 passes in the second half.
Chief among those was wreaking havoc on the Washington offense was defensive end Chad Bratzke, who finished the game with three sacks, giving him 12 on the season and breaking the single-season record of 11.5 sacks set by Johnnie Cooks in 1984. Bratzke also led the team's defensive linemen with five tackles and had a defended pass.
"We wanted to rattle Brad a little bit, and we did a good job of that." Said Bratzke.
In addition to Bratzke, a number of Colts stepped up their level of play in the second half. Linebacker Mike Peterson paced the team with 10 tackles and nearly had a sack in the fourth quarter. Nickelback Tony Blevins shook off a bad pass interference call to register five tackles and two crucial defensed passes. Jason Belser blocked a Brett Conway field goal and had five solo tackles. And cornerback Jeff Burris redeemed himself for an earlier touchdown catch by making a fourth-down tackle on Brian Mitchell midway through the fourth quarter.
"Somebody had to make a play," Peterson said of the team's defensive effort in the second half. "Somebody had to come up and make a play. We just had to stop them and get off the field, and that's what we did."Onward and Upward
With two games remaining on the schedule, the Colts still have an outside chance of securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs. To do so, they would need to win their final two games against the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills and hope for a pair of losses by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Should the Colts win both games and the Jaguars lose only one, the Colts could theoretically still earn home field advantage, but the outcome depends on a number of factors in the league's tiebreaker system and probably won't be decided until the end of the season.
For the time being, however, it appears the Colts are just happy to be back in the postseason. "This is what you work for," said Bennett after the game. "To come to a team that drafted me and help turn this team around is a special feeling."
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Mike Devitt is a reporter for AllSports.com. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.