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After a break-through 13-3 season in 1999, the 2000 Colts started the year strong. Six wins in their first eight games had them looking forward to a top playoff seed in the AFC. They were far from a balanced team. In fact, the ‘triplets’ of Harrison, James and Manning basically lugged the team through the schedule. Just when it looked like the Colts might be breaking through, the wheels inexplicably fell off.
They lost a heartbreaking and frustrating game to the Bears in Chicago that started a slide. The Colts fell behind early, thanks in part to a fake field goal by the Bears which was defended perfectly. The Chicago holder, Louie Agiar threw a ball straight up in the air as he was being tackled. The ball dropped right into the arms of Mike Wells who picked up 13 yards and a Bears first down. The Colts trailed 27-0 in the third quarter before roaring back with 24 unanswered points. They got the ball with a chance to win the game in the end, but Manning was sacked as he threw and fumbled.
Things only got worse from there. Two weeks later they trailed 19-0 in Green Bay before rallying. Again, they came up just short, losing 26-24. More losses would follow, all frustrating. They blew a fourth quarter lead at home against the Dolphins. Finally, the once 7-3 Colts saw their record drop to 7-6 with a third straight loss (and fourth in five games) to the Jets. The Colts trailed 20-0 (stop me if you’ve heard this story). They roared back to cut the lead to 20-17, but two botched snaps in the fourth quarter did in the Colts. They dropped to 7-6. Bob Kravitz, then in his first year in Indianapolis, proclaimed the team done. Not only did they suddenly have to right the ship with 3 wins to close the season, but they needed a lot of help. They trailed the Jets by two games with three to play.
Strangely, all the breaks started to go their way. It started with a blowout win at home over the Bills. The next week, the Colts won in Miami, jumping out to a 20-3 lead and cruising to a victory. Later that afternoon, the Jets headed west to Oakland to play the Raiders. They got spanked 31-7, their second consecutive loss.
The once dead Colts needed only to win their final game of the season to make the playoffs.
They had a home game against an excellent Vikings team, who had clinched everything they could clinch. Manning, Harrison and James all shined in a late afternoon game on Christmas Eve. The Colts had rallied back for a 10-6 record and a playoff berth.
The playoff game in Miami was one of the worst coached games in Indianapolis history. Indy had a big early lead despite a bevy of mistakes (Jerome Pathon dropped a touchdown pass, Mora called for a terrible fake field goal). In the fourth quarter, Manning set the Colts up for a field goal for a 7 point lead with about four minutes to play. The defense blew the lead, but the Colts won the toss in overtime. Manning moved the Colts into Dolphins territory. Jim Mora elected to decline a penalty that would have given the Colts (edit: a chance at) an extra first down, instead choosing to let Mike Vanderjagt try a 49 yard field goal to win the game. Vandy shanked the ball badly to the right, and the Dolphins marched downfield with ease, winning 23-17.
Still, the 2000 Colts serve to remind us of some important truths:
1. As long as you have games you can win, you have a chance.
2. Some years, the playoffs start early
3. Teams can change their momentum on a dime.
4. Jim Mora was a terrible playoff coach.
And finally: making the playoffs is hard. It is an accomplishment. Never, ever take it for granted, and never treat it with contempt.