With 9:11 left in the third quarter of their wild-card playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Indianapolis Colts found themselves trailing by 21 points.
It was a HOME playoff game, against a team they'd beat by 16 a few weeks earlier. They weren't supposed to be in this position. They had scored a quick touchdown on the drive before, with quarterback Andrew Luck hitting Da'Rick Rogers for a big gain before running back Donald Brown reached the end zone for the first of his two touchdowns in the game.
But, the Chiefs were moving the ball once again, and had gotten into Colts territory. The Colts had been unable to slow the Chiefs attack all game, with Alex Smith and the zone read killing Indianapolis in th first half, even without superstar running back Jamaal Charles.
The Colts needed a big play. They needed a turnover. Everything had gone wrong up to this point. The Colts needed the ball to start bouncing their way.
But for the ball to bounce their way, the Colts first needed to knock it out of Smith's surprisingly competent hands. There was only one player to turn to.
Dan Pompeii wrote about the moment today for Sports On Earth, saying "When the Colts were trailing the Chiefs by 21 points with 9:11 remaining in the third quarter last Saturday, no one would have believed Robert Mathis' strip-sack would have been the turning point in the Colts' stunning 45-44 wildcard victory."
With all due respect to Pompeii, I absolutely would have believed it. In fact, I did. I thought to myself, "This seems about the right situation for Mathis to get a strip." I even contemplated tweeting it.
Of course, I didn't. And then Mathis came out and did this:
I'm not tooting my own horn here. Anybody that's watched the Colts consistently this season has seen Robert Mathis turn big games with sacks and forced turnovers, instigating comebacks or halting opponent momentum.
Against the 49ers, Mathis and Cory Redding met at Kaepernick on third down after the 49ers got good field position of a rare miss by Adam Vinatieri. The Colts went on a nearly seven-minute touchdown drive on the next possession to go up 13, and that was the ball game.
Against the Seahawks, Mathis sacked Russell Wilson twice, including forcing a fumble, and added another tackle for a loss and a pass defended. His two sacks combined probably saved seven points (a field goal prior to half and limited a potential TD drive to a field goal on another).
Against the Broncos, in the biggest game of the regular season, Mathis sacked Peyton Manning and forced a fumble that turned into a safety, as well as getting into Manning's head. Manning was off for the rest of the game, and the Colts pulled out the upset.
Against Kansas City, Mathis forced fumbles in both matchups, none bigger than the one last Saturday.
In every big win the Colts have had, Mathis has played a primary role, which is why Peter Bukowski's criticism of him not having enough "marquee games" didn't make any sense. If you've watched Robert Mathis this season at all, you'll see marquee moments.
If you want to build a case against Mathis, there are arguments. For example, players like Robert Quinn or Luke Kuechly make more of an impact on every snap than Mathis does. Quinn had far more total pressures and is a better run defender than Mathis (although Mathis did have a decent year in that regard as well). But no player had a bigger impact on wins, and on the season as a whole, as Mathis did.
Mathis, unlike some other DPOY candidates, didn't have much help around him. No defensive lineman forced teams to game plan for them, or even give them any extra attention. The Colts inside linebackers were somewhat effective in blitzes, but largely because of their lack of use. Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner have added virtually nothing across from Mathis in terms of pass rush. The secondary was only effective if the Colts had a successful passs rush. If Robert Mathis wasn't making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable, the Colts defense was downright bad.
He had 46% of his team's sacks. Robert Quinn had 36% of his teams. Nobody else had anywhere near the load of pass rushing that Mathis did. Throw in the veteran leadership that he provides for a young team, and you get everything the Colts could have hoped for from a rush outside linebacker, and more.
Robert Quinn? Sorry, I've laid out a few reasons why I prefer Mathis this season. More turnovers, more weight to carry, and better results. Quinn had much better help, yet the Rams defense really wasn't that much better than Indianapolis' was, especially against the pass.
Luke Keuchly is a good leader on a very good defense, but I don't even think he's the best inside linebacker in the NFC, and that nasty front four makes Keuchly's life much easier.
Yeah, Seattle's defense is great, but how do you pick one player to receive the award? No player had a particularly great individual year, but it was the sum of a deep group of parts.
The only player I'd consider over Mathis is J.J. Watt, because of just how good he is. But on a 2-14 team with a down statistical year, I had to give my PFWA DPOY vote to Mathis.
In a year where the Colts offense didn't dominate, and the Colts needed the defense to step up and perform in big spots, Indianapolis relied on Mathis. And he responded.
He's not the best defensive player in the league. That distinction still falls on Watt, and it's not really close. But he was arguably the regular season MVP for a Super Bowl contending team, and had the biggest plays, in the biggest moments, all season. He was the only defender to get 49 out of 50 All-Pro votes. At age 32, he had the best year of his career, and one of the best years ever by a Colt defender.
He may not be the best defender, but I'd put his season up there with anybody.