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December 26, 1999
Colts Win 29-28 Squeaker in Cleveland
By Mike Devitt
The Indianapolis Colts have already lost a pair of games they should have won this season. This Sunday, the Colts won a game they should have lost, using the arm of Peyton Manning and the foot of Mike Vanderjagt to post a 29-28 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Manning, playing in probably the most adverse conditions he'd faced all year, did not throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 28 games, ending a streak that had begun last September against the New Orleans Saints. Nevertheless, he did manage to complete 28 passes -- half of which were caught by Marvin Harrison -- for 283 yards and no interceptions. He also scrambled twice for 17 yards, including a crucial eight-yard gallop for a first down during the team's game-winning drive.
Vanderjagt, meanwhile, connected on field goals of 41, 19 and 21 yards, the last one coming with four seconds left in the game to give the Colts a one-point lead. In the process, Vanderjagt ran his consecutive field goal streak to 24 and added further proof to his claim of being one of the best kickers in the AFC.
"Edgerrin (running back Edgerrin James) and all those guys put it in the right spot," Vanderjagt said after the game. "It's a 21-yard kick that I could do in my sleep."
While Vanderjagt may dream of kicking game-winning field goals, one person who probably won't be doing much sleep over the next few nights is head coach Jim Mora, whose defense allowed the Browns to gain a season-high 141 yards rushing and were unable to sack Cleveland quarterback Ty Detmer despite the loss of four starters on the Browns' offensive line.
"We were a little inconsistent from the standpoint of how we played," said Mora, who also gave the Browns' coaching staff much-deserved credit for getting their team ready to play. "We came in here, and I felt like we were ready to play a good game. We just made some mistakes on defense I was a little disappointed in how we played defensively. I don't think we played up to our capability, and that's always disappointing when you don't."
Despite Mora's disappointment, the win put Indianapolis into a tie with Jacksonville for the best record in the AFC. The victory also made the Colts the first team in league history to win ten more games than in their previous year, breaking a mark held by the 1929 New York Giants and 1963 Oakland Raiders.
Cleveland's Early Start Catches Colts Napping
The Browns got on the scoreboard early in the first quarter, as Detmer engineered a 12-play, 53-yard drive capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by Terry Kirby. The Colts tied the score at seven with a one-yard touchdown run by Edgerrin James on their next possession, but the Browns would not quit, with Detmer connecting on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Darrin Chiaverini to put Cleveland back on top 14-7.
"I thought we had a good game plan. We hit a lot of quick passes," said Detmer. "I felt real comfortable out there (and) felt like I was seeing everything."
Indianapolis would close the gap to 14-13 with a pair of Vanderjagt field goals in the second quarter, but the Browns would expand their lead to 21-13 with an eight-yard touchdown run by Detmer to start the second half. In all, Detmer would pass for 173 yards and a touchdown against Indianapolis.
While Detmer did an admirable job passing, Cleveland's running game was even more impressive, with Kirby and Karim Abdul Jabbar gaining a season-high 141 yards and scoring three touchdowns on the ground. What makes those stats even more remarkable is the fact that the Browns were using four different starters on the offensive line.
"Anytime the running game's going like it was today, it makes the quarterback's job a lot easier on the quarterback," said Detmer. "They did a great job."
Not until the fourth quarter would Indianapolis begin to resemble the team that had entered Sunday's contest riding a ten-game winning streak and leading the AFC in total offense. Down 28-19 as the quarter started, Manning marched the Colts 77 yards on 11 plays to narrow Cleveland's lead to two points.
Manning completed six of seven passes for 52 yards and hit four separate receivers during the drive, including three catches to Marvin Harrison. Edgerrin James then punched the ball in from two yards out, narrowing the gap to 28-26.
James ended up gaining 103 yards and rushing for three touchdowns against Cleveland, tying the rookie mark set by Marshall Faulk in 1994. He also became the first rookie in league history to rush for more than 100 yards ten times in a single season and took over as the NFL's rushing leader.
Harrison, meanwhile, finished the day with a single-game record 14 catches for 138 yards. He also became the first player in Colts history (and the 25th receiver in league history) to catch 100 passes in a single season.
"We showed that being in the situation that we were in, that we could come back and put points on the board and come out with a victory," Harrison said. "It was a tough game, but I think it's going to help us down the road."
The Indianapolis defense, as has been the case for the past few weeks, came up big when the team needed it most, holding Cleveland to go three-and-out on consecutive possessions. Chad Bratzke, who was held without a sack, came up with a huge tackle for loss, while Mike Peterson stopped Terry Kirby from making a first down, forcing a Cleveland punt which gave Indianapolis the ball on their own 42-yard line.
This time, offensive coordinator Tom Moore left the ball completely in the hands of Manning, James and Harrison, as the three combined for all 54 yards gained on the team's last drive. Their next to last play, a five-yard run by James to the Cleveland three-yard line, set up the ball perfectly for Vanderjagt, who split the uprights from 21 yards out to give the Colts the win.
Once the contest was over, players from both sides commented on the Browns' high level of play, which nearly sent the Colts home with an embarrassing loss.
"It was just unfortunate to come out on the losing end, but Indianapolis has done that to a couple of teams this year," said Detmer. "They're a great football team, or they wouldn't be 13-2 now, on their way to the playoffs, with a first round bye and all that.
"I thought Cleveland played well," added Manning, remembering what the final game of his own rookie season was like. "They played as good as they've played all season on film as far as I've seen. We knew we were going to get their best effort because we were in the same position they were in last year.
"We knew we'd get their best effort, and it was a dogfight. The entire game, that's what we expected. Obviously, we didn't play as well as we could have, but I feel good about the win. It's a tough place to play, and we'll take the win and run with it."
* With four catches for 25 yards, rookie running back Edgerrin James now has a total of 59 receptions on the season. The Colts' rookie record is 65, set by Bill Brooks in 1986.* Vanderjagt's three field goals and two extra points gave him 139 points on the year, breaking the single-season record of 135 set by Cary Blanchard in 1996. Vanderjagt now owns team records for consecutive field goals made, (23) and highest career field goal percentage (88.1%) and is a perfect 66 of 66 in extra points.
* Ken Dilger extended his lead over Marcus Pollard for most catches by a Colts tight end this season. Dilger caught four passes for 56 yards and has 35 receptions this season, seven short of his career high. Pollard caught two passes for 24 yards and has already set a career-high with 32 receptions.
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Mike Devitt is a reporter for AllSports.com. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.