INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The Indianapolis Colts are back in the playoffs.
And they look like they’re ready to defend their AFC championship, too.
Peyton Manning threw two touchdown passes, the defense limited Chris Johnson to 39 yards rushing and the always-clutch Adam Vinatieri booted a 43-yard field goal as time expired Sunday to give the Colts a 23-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans. They earned their seventh — and most improbable — AFC South title in eight seasons.
“We know what they were up against and how difficult it was and to overcome all that and win the division,” owner Jim Irsay said, “it is extra special.”
For the Colts (10-6), there were plenty of reasons to celebrate.
They tied Dallas’ NFL record of nine consecutive playoff appearances, set from 1975-83.
Manning broke Gene Upshaw’s long-standing record for most consecutive starts to open a career (208) and then set a new mark for completions in a season (450), established just a few hours earlier by Drew Brees. The four-time league MVP also threw his 398th and 399th career TD passes, falling one short of joining Brett Favre and Dan Marino as the only members of the 400 club.
Reggie Wayne caught nine passes for 68 yards and one TD, moving past Hall of Famer Raymond Berry into second in franchise history with his 69th career touchdown receiving.
Indy became only the third team since 2000 to lose a Super Bowl and return to the playoffs the following year.
Plus, the Colts did all that despite having 17 players on injured reserve.
The reward: a Saturday night showdown with the New York Jets in a rematch of last year’s AFC title game. They also have a chance to host a second straight championship game as the surprise No. 3 seed, thanks to Kansas City’s 31-10 loss to Oakland.
“I’ll wait until Tuesday to get into that (the Jets),” Manning said. “We just kind of found out what time we’re playing and who we’re playing and get going on them starting this week.”
Yes, the Colts were fortunate.
After losing to Dallas on Dec. 5, they were 6-6 and in serious jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since 2001. So coach Jim Caldwell told his players they needed four straight wins to make it back.
They did it, barely, and got a little help along the way.
Moments after Dominic Rhodes lost a fumble and Tennessee ran it back to the Colts 37, Houston’s 34-17 victory over Jacksonville went final — assuring the Colts of the division crown. But they still needed to win to avoid a possible second-round matchup at New England.
Two plays later, Kerry Collins fumbled the snap and Robert Mathis recovered at the Colts 38. Manning needed only five plays to get the Colts into Vinatieri’s range, then waited patiently next to the official as the clock ticked down. He called timeout with three seconds left.
Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in league history, wasted no time in adding another line to his legacy, raising his arms after the 43-yarder went through.
“They’re never the same and you never take them lightly,” said Vinatieri, who was 3 for 3 and matched a season-long with a 48-yarder in the first quarter. “We just have to have the opportunity at the end to help our team win that game. It was a good win, an important win for us. We’ll take it.”
For Tennessee (6-10), it was a fitting end to a season gone awry.
The Titans were 5-2 in late October, then lost eight of nine and now face uncertainty after a public spat between Vince Young and coach Jeff Fisher put the futures of both in doubt.
Fisher told the television broadcast crew he expected a quick decision to be made about his job status and later said he hoped to return next season.
“I’m under contract for another year, so we’ll see,” Fisher said. “We’re going to come back and have wrap-up physicals tomorrow and we’ll start our evaluation process.”
The Colts won this one the same way they had the previous three — by running effectively and stopping the run.
“They’ve been playing better the last couple of weeks,” Collins said. “They definitely have improved since the last time we played them. You can’t just come in here and say we’re going to pound the ball at them for 150 yards. It just doesn’t happen like that.”
Meanwhile, Indy topped 100 yards rushing for the third straight game and Manning played like his usual self. He finished 27 of 41 for 264 yards and probably would have thrown for a record-breaking 64th 300-yard game had it not been for a handful of drops.
Late in the first half, Manning hooked up with Wayne on a bubble screen, and the receiver sprinted around the right side and into the end zone for a 7-yard score to make it 13-6.
Collins punched back in the second half, throwing a 21-yard TD pass to Kenny Britt to tie the score.
Manning answered with a perfect 30-yard over-the-shoulder pass to Pierre Garcon to make it 20-13, then Collins tied it again on Johnson’s 15-yard reception that made it 20-20 with 4:18 left in the third quarter.
Neither team scored again until Vinatieri’s field goal ended it.
“I think it shows the resolve of this team and our fight,” Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re 6-6 and we have to win our last four, we have to do it. If we have to win the last seven, we’ll try to do it. That’s just kind of what we are and we’ve been that for a while.”
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