It's with the just the slightest tinge of sadness that I recap one of the crowning moments of football in Indianapolis. On a night full of hugs, joy, and plans for glory, I can't help but feel like I just watched the absolute pinnacle of the masterful career of Peyton Manning. He's been brilliant before, of course, but there was something about what he did to the #1 defense in football today that was transcendent. On a night where at various times he was failed by his line and even his most reliable of receivers (glad you got that ball to bounce back to you again, Reggie), Peyton Manning lifted the franchise onto his shoulders and decimated the vaunted New York Jets secondary. His entire career I've wondered when I would see the best game he would ever play. I thought maybe I had seen it on Monday Night in Miami this year, but what he did today defies words. He's going to have plenty of other incredible days (hopefully one in two weeks), but what I saw from him this afternoon...that may just be the absolute peak of his considerable powers. I'm so grateful I got to watch it, but also just a little melancholy because now I know. I know how great he can play. This is the utter limit of his skill. The mystery is solved. I may never see the like again.
Reasons to Smile:
- Pierre Garcon. Holy Moses, Frenchy. The last two weeks have elevated him to near legendary status. Already the owner of the greatest hustle play in Colts history, he now owns the record for the most catches in an AFC Championship game. He didn't just make big catches; he made tough in traffic catches. There was nary a gimme in the bunch. He was wonderful in every way. How are the Colts going to find room for all the wideouts next year?
- Austin Collie. Insane. At the key moment of the game, Manning found him three straight times for a total of 80 yards and a score. I cannot believe how good these two have been all year. I easily confess it was the thing I was most wrong about before the season. I couldn't see how either Collie or Garcon would end up doing what they have done. Now...I couldn't imagine life without them. In the end, all the Revis island stuff was a red herring. Manning had Collie and Garcon so open all night that there wasn't much cause to look at Wayne.
- After falling behind 17-6, Indy closed the game on a 24-0 run. The D allowed zero second half points.
- Joe Addai continues to do a little bit of everything, proving he is both extremely tough and incalculably valuable to this team.
- Jim Caldwell's team showed no hint of panic. Everyone was calm and collected even when a few big plays went the wrong way. I've really come to root hard for Caldwell. I think he's been the perfect man to run this team all year.
- Allowing the Jets into the playoffs may have been an accident, but it was a brilliant one. Listen, I still maintain the Colts were needlessly insensitive to the fact that people bought tickets for Christmas to the first Jets game. They should have made their intentions more explicit to their fans, and they should have managed the game situations differently in the first game (like not punting in Jet territory). The decision itself to rest the players was always endorsed by us. 16-0 was never a realistic possibility thanks to that blizzard in Buffalo. There was no sane way for Indy to win that game, so in my mind it's a non-issue. Regardless of they could have gone about it, no one can deny that the Colts have been fresh, prepared, and have had a relatively easy road to the Super Bowl. Beyond that, this team is playing loose and together. There's no crazy "18-0" pressure to wear them down. I'm convinced that the "Holy Grail" metaphor was perfect. They let go of the grail, but could well bring home the Lombardi. I can live with that.
- The speed of the Colts D against the Jets run game. Too many runs wide looked like they were going to be big gains, but were quickly snuffed out by a blazing linebacker or safety. Incredible run D today.
- The crowd was "loud as hell" according to Demond, who called it possibly the loudest he's ever heard (and yes, he was at 38-34).
- Kelvin Hayden atoning for a couple of bad plays with an incredible pass breakup late, followed by a pick. He hung with them today.
- Nobody rebounds from a dropped pass like Dallas Clark.
- Field goal Karma
- Bending, not breaking
- The second half adjustments by the defense were perfect.
- Uh, that guy throwing the ball for the Colts didn't have a bad game either.
- While the line mostly shored things up late, there was some ugliness early. Two sacks, the bizarre missed block on Addai's fumble (which was not his fault) and a false start on Diem helped contribute to a sense of doom early.
- The main thing I didn't think the Jets could do against Indy was get big plays. They got two. The first was when Lacey got caught looking the backfield and bit on a route when he had no help over the top. Can't do that, rook. Can't do that. The Brad Smith bomb was a little more forgivable because I remember a stat that said the Jets hadn't passed out of the Tiger Cat all year. Still, if Hayden minds his assignment, I don't think the Jets score more than 10 points.
- The Colts got some pressure at times, but Sanchez made some nice moves to escape. The blitz didn't seem to be very effective at landing.
- I don't know where else to put this, but Sanchez played considerably better than I thought possible. His third down throw for a score to Keller was the most impressive moment of the game. He got whacked, but Keller had made an incredible move to barely get open hauled it in. He showed something today. Still, the Jets only scored 17 points, and one of those drives was thanks to a big play by Smith throwing the ball. Don't assume the Jets are instant favorites next year in the AFC. Remember the '08 Ravens. They didn't get better this year. They stayed basically the same, even though Flacco improved.
- The Jets offense clearly out schemed the Colts in the first half. The good news was that once Indy was attuned to their 'tricks' (like the play action...duh), the D shut out the Jets in the second half.
- I used to be scared of the Saints a little. Not anymore. By the way, that was the worst officiated overtime in history. I'm still not sure how they upheld the fourth and 1 play when Thomas clearly fumbled AFTER his forward progress had hit the first down. Shouldn't the ball have been spotted where he recovered? Doesn't the fumble eliminate the forward progress? If the Jets blitz posed no problem for 18, I'm doubting Gregg Williams has anything that will rattle him.
- This matchup feels a little like Pats/Eagles in the Super Bowl. I'm just not convinced the NFC is any good at all.
- The run game was effective. That's always a plus.
- This is it. A second Super Bowl trip. Indy can permanently put away all the 'underachiever' crap with one more good game. Maybe then we can talk about football instead of nonsense.
- All of a sudden, writing a book about the history of the Colts seems like a well timed idea.
- At the end of the day, we have Peyton. After what he did today, I'm not sure anything else much matters.
- No Favre/Manning comparisons. Good gravy, that was the worst pick I've ever seen. That was a rookie mistake by an old, old man. We were torn all night as to which was the better team, but after watching the Vikings screw up the final :30 six ways to Sunday, I was rooting to play them. In the end, it was a toss up.
- We didn't win the ticket lottery, so Demond probably won't be going to the game. Bummer.
- Freeney, Bullitt, Powers. We are going to need all three. I'm freaking over what looked like a weird landing for Freeney. Good thing we have two weeks to get ready.
- The Saints kick return game terrifies me. I don't want to get burned by Roby who we cut at the start of last year. That would hurt.
Indy was the better team today, by a lot. Other than the Lacey gaffe on Edwards' TD, it really turned out fairly predictably. The Jets were basically what we thought. Sanchez was a lot better, and the secondary was a lot worse, but all in all, it turned out like it should. Indy basically won by two TDs, and Rex Ryan once again showed he is powerless to stop Peyton Manning.
No matter what happens in two weeks, this season has been a great one and a success. A loss would be disappointing for sure, but I think we can all agree that given everything that has happened in the past 12 months (Marv and Dungy leave, Gonzo, MJax, Zombie go down), making the Super Bowl has been an accomplishment. They are going up against a truly formidable football team for the right to say, "No one ever beat us." Win or lose in Miami, I'm immensely proud of the 2009 Colts.