4 of a Kind – All Wild

This year, barring the unthinkable, the Colts will qualify for the Wild Card playoff spot for the 5th time in their history in Indianapolis.  There are some similarities between the the past WC entries and the 2008 version.

1995 Colts (9-7 Regular season, 2-1 Playoffs)

How they remind me of the 2008 Colts: The Cardiac Colts were lead by Captain Comeback.  If you didn’t know I was talking about 1995, you might think we were discussing the 08 bunch.  The 1995 Colts won 7 games by less than a touchdown, with several coming on miracle finishes by Jim Harbaugh.  The 08 Colts have shown much of the same sort of resolve winning…7 games by less than a touchdown, with several coming on miracle finishes by Peyton Manning.
How they are different:  The 95 Colts were a run heavy team that struggled throwing the ball, despite Jim Harbaugh leading the NFL in passer rating.  The 08 Colts are 31st running the ball, and basically have a one dimensional offense that centers around the pass.
Lessons to learn:  Anything is possible.  The 95 Colts proved that if you get a winnable game against an AFC West team in the first round AND get a second round game on the road against a team with a great defense whose offense just might tank, that you can go into Pittsburgh…and get screwed by the officials!  We have a lot to look forward to.

1996 Colts (9-7 Regular season, 0-1 Playoffs)
How they remind me of the 2008 Colts:  This club was amazing…until injuries devastated it.  They were a force on offense and defense, but it all went for naught one ugly day in Buffalo.  The 2008 Colts were called by Bill Polian the most talented team in his tenure in Indianapolis.  Then the floor fell out.  4 members of the starting line got hurt; Peyton Manning missed time in camp; Joe Addai and Dallas Clark missed games; Marlin Jackson blew a knee; Kelvin Hayden and Bob Sanders missed significant time and Gray Brackett broke a leg.  And that list doesn’t include the DTs and various special teamers who have been knocked out.
How they are different:  The 1996 Colts started the season hot, lost 6 of 8 in the middle, and rallied to make the Wild Card.  The 2008 Colts had a brutal start, but have come on like gangbusters late in the year to take firm control of their own destiny.
Lessons to learn:  Sometimes, too much is too much.  The injuries and losses pushed Indy into a tough road game against Pittsburgh.  They lead at the half, but the Steelers dominated the 3rd and 4th quarters for a lopsided win.  In the end, it was all just too much to overcome.  A team can lose players and still compete up to a point, but to win playoff games on the road, you have to have a reasonably healthy crew.  The 08 Colts can’t afford another significant injury if they want to make a run in January.  Oh, it also helps if your QB doesn’t get his jaw broken in the first half.

2000 Colts (10-6 Regular season, 0-1 Playoffs)
How they remind me of the 2008 Colts:  Peyton Manning played at a MVP-like level and led the Colts to three wins in a row to close out the regular season, and nailed down a playoff spot on the last day.  They drew a first round matchup in Miami that seemed like a very winnable game.  They also had a spread the wealth system on offense with 5 players getting at least 40 catches.
How they are different:  The 2000 team underachieved.  They seemed like a better team than their record all year long, and wasted an amazing year by Edgerrine James who was dominant.  They blew teams out, but lost close games.  The 2000 team didn’t know how to win.
Lessons to learn:  Don’t go into a playoff game with Jim Mora and Mike Vanderjagt.  Ok, so that’s one we don’t have to sweat.  I suppose this is a case of be careful what you wish for.  A first round matchup with the Dolphins seemed like a good bet, but only Peyton Manning showed up for the game.  The Colts spent three quarters dropping passes, but still building a lead, only to see the defense wilt late.  Of all four of these teams, this is the one that has the least in common with the 08 Colts.  I can’t see this version of the Horse losing a playoff game like this.

2002 Colts (10-6 Regular season, 0-1 Playoffs) 

How they remind me of the 2008 Colts:  They started slow (4-4), but a nice November win streak got them up to double digit wins.  They had a stifling pass defense that only yielded 9 TDs all season.  Manning’s stats are eerily similar to this year. The 2002 team won 6 games by less than one score. They overachieved a bit according to their expected wins and losses. They got a first round playoff game against a division winner with a worse regular season record than they had.The running game was suspect all year as Edge was recovering from knee surgery.
How they are different:  This team was still feeling its way along in Tony Dungy’s first season.  The defense was still transitioning into it’s new style, and Manning was trying to learn that protecting the ball was critically important.  Manning had little rapport with his WRs, which lead to Marvin Harrison’s insane 143 catches.  Manning and Harrison took this team to the playoffs almost by themselves.
Lessons to learn:  Bad weather playoff games on bad fields can go awry.  The defense seemed sound leading up to this game, but it got completely blown off the field in the first 10 minutes of the game.  The offense was placed in a 17-0 hole and never had the chance to recover.  You can never chalk up a win on the road in January.  The defense has to come to play.  It really helps to be able to run the ball as well.

The most important thing to remember about this season is that this will be far and away the best of the Indy wild card teams.  None of these teams won more than 10 games, and none of them had the cohesiveness of playing together for as long as the core of this team has.  Three of the four playoff runs ended in the first game, which is probably about what most of those teams ultimately deserved.  With any luck, we’ll be comparing the 2008 Colts with the 2006 Colts instead of the 1996 team.