Sept 14: Gonzo's Gambit
After getting embarrassed by the Chicago Bears in the regular-season opener of Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts were on the road against another NFC North opponent, the Minnesota Vikings.
For most of the afternoon, it looked as though the Colts were on their way to an 0-2 record, as the Vikings built a 15-0 lead behind five Ryan Longwell field goals. With just 4:08 left in the third quarter and Peyton Manning still showing rust from his preseason knee surgery, things were looking bleak for the boys in white and blue.
Gonzalez came up with the biggest play of his young career to spark the Colts in Minnesota
AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid
Enter Anthony Gonzalez. There's often a fine line between heroism and foolishness, and the sophomore receiver rolled the dice and came up with the former.
After making a catch in the clear down the left sideline, Gonzalez streaked towards the end zone for 58 yards, but was forced to make a cutback before he got there. While being dragged down backwards at the 18-yard line, he spied receiving mate Reggie Wayne trailing the play. Gonzalez lateraled the ball to him, and Wayne hurdled the scrum and carried the ball down to the one-yard line. The Colts got on the scoreboard three plays later.
The play, which went against orthodox receiver policy, proved to be just the spark the Colts needed, as Manning hit Wayne for a touchdown later in the game, and squeezed out an 18-15 victory when Adam Vinatieri converted a field goal with eight seconds left.
"It wasn't drawn up," Tony Dungy said of the Gonzalez-to-Wayne connection. "There are times where it just happens and it's there. That was a play we made and you have to give him credit, he and Reggie both, for an alert play. It's not something we practice and you certainly don't usually make them at the end of 60-yard plays, but that was a big one for us."
Gonzalez posted season- and career-highs in the game with nine catches for 137 yards, and the 58-yard catch was a career-long as well.
Oct. 5: Heroics in Houston
Pinpointing one specific play from this unlikely AFC South win by the Colts would be like asking Joey Chestnut which which hot dog tastes the best. Suffice to say, a lot of extremely unusual plays added up to a 31-27 Colts shocker that left the Texans with a bad taste in their mouths.
The Colts trailed, 27-10, with just over four minutes to play and looked to be headed to a 1-3 start.
Peyton Manning found Tom Santi for a touchdown — Santi's only TD of the season and the last catch he would make in 2008 — which even Manning would later admit seemed like a stat-padder at the time, and then things started to get crazy.
Wayne's catch was just one of several miraculous plays in Houston
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Needing a couple of first downs to salt the game away, Houston QB Sage Rosenfels made a third-down scramble, and most fans remember what happened next — Rosenfels launched himself in the air towards the first-down marker and found himself crunched between Marlin Jackson and Raheem Brock.
As Rosenfels windmilled to the turf, he lost the ball, and Gary Brackett found it, picked it up, and took it 68 yards the other way for a touchdown.
Houston's lead was now just 27-24, but it still just needed a first down or two to hang on. The Colts needed another miracle turnover. Amazingly, they got it.
On another third-down scramble, Rosenfels again had the ball forcibly removed, this time by Robert Mathis, who came all the way across the field from his left end position and swiped the ball in a full-layout effort from behind.
After Mathis fell on the ball at the 21-yard line, Manning found Wayne two plays later for the winning touchdown — a twisting, one-handed grab while falling out of bounds with Jacques Reeves draped on him.
The defense had one more big play left — a Melvin Bullitt interception of Rosenfels to close out the victory.
"We kept fighting," Marlin Jackson said. "It was a total team effort. (The win) means a lot. We definitely needed some confidence. We hadn't played well the whole game and then to turn it around and play that well at the end. It helps your confidence and gives us a boost."
While no one single play stands out as the most significant — the Colts needed every one for this win — the wild flurry may have been a turning point in the Colts' season. Although they routed Baltimore a week later, 31-3, two more losses to Green Bay and Tennessee dropped them to 3-4. A 2-5 mark — even with the nine-game winning streak to end the season — may have been too deep a hole to recover from.
Nov. 9: Foster's One-Man Stand
The Colts were still scuffling a bit at the midway point of the season, standing 4-4 despite a home win over top rival New England. But they now faced a road trip to Pittsburgh, where no Colts team had won in 40 years.
All season long, the Colts had struggled to stop teams from running the ball, and had trouble on third down. Part of that was due to the problems that began early in the season at defensive tackle when Quinn Pitcock retired unexpectedly and Ed Johnson was released after an arrest.
But one undrafted rookie who was a benefit of the turmoil at defensive tackle, Eric Foster, saw an opportunity to make a statement in the third quarter against Pittsburgh and made the most of it.
Foster's big stops helped the Colts to a rare win in Pittsburgh
With the game tied midway through the fourth quarter, the Steelers were threatening with a first-and-goal inside the Indianapolis five-yard line. A carry from Mewelde Moore took the ball down to the one, but Foster was able to step up and stuff the Pittsburgh runner on both second and third down to force a field goal. The third-down stop was particularly memorable, as Foster shed a block and enveloped Moore, stopping him cold short of the line.
""That's really just goal-line charge, something we've been working on," Dungy said afterwards. "We hadn't been very effective at it, but we got some penetration ... They ran the same play five times and scored twice. We kept looking at the pictures, ‘Here's where they're going to run.' The same guy went in motion. By that time, you had to have an idea of what was coming. The last two times, we got some good penetration and stopped it."
It was a welcome departure from the norm for the Colts, who were able to hold the Steelers to a field goal, and later, score the winning touchdown on a pass from Manning to Dominic Rhodes. The Colts also got key interceptions in the fourth quarter from Tim Jennings and Melvin Bullitt.
The Steelers would lose just one more time after that game and go on to win the Super Bowl. For Indianapolis, it was the second win of a nine-game winning streak to close the season.
Nov. 23: Fourth-Down Fireworks
There haven't been a lot of success stories over the last few seasons when it comes to the Colts against the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have eliminated the Colts from the playoffs in both seasons since their Super Bowl win, and also grabbed a win in the 2007 regular-season, forcing six Peyton Manning interceptions.
But Manning was at his gambling best in 2008's regular-season matchup, hooking up with an old partner in yet another close escape.
Here's what ColtPower published after the game:
Facing a fourth-and-one inch near midfield with just 26 seconds left and the score knotted at 20-20, the Indianapolis Colts had several scenarios to think about Sunday night against the San Diego Chargers. Many of the probable outcomes seemed unpleasant, but Colts coach Tony Dungy had other thoughts in mind.
The options for Dungy and the Colts seemed to be: 1. Go for a quarterback sneak behind a rookie center; 2. Risk a short run at midfield, a scenario the Chargers had stuffed on the previous series; 3. Punt to the dangerous Darren Sproles, hope the Chargers don't score and take their chances in overtime.
Instead, Dungy went with Option 4: A play-action pass from Peyton Manning that left Marvin Harrison open on a drag route. Manning hit Harrison for a 14-yard first down to the Charger 34-yard line.
The fourth-down gamble paid off for the Colts, as the Colts were able to set up a game-winning field goal from Adam Vinatieri after the Manning-to-Harrison connection.
Manning's clutch throw to Harrison gave the Colts a narrow escape in San Diego
It was a play that took guts, and while it wasn't a surprise that Manning was willing to execute it, it seemed a departure from Dungy's normally conservative style.
"Usually, I'll ask (Offensive Coordinator Tom Moore and QB-Peyton Manning) if they have a good play, a play that they like," Dungy said of the fourth-down play. "I make the decision whether we should go for it or kick it. But, we all talked about that situation (Sunday night) and said, ‘When we snap this ball, there will probably be about 15 seconds left. If we have a play that can pick up 15, 18 yards, we can be in field goal range, call our last timeout and kick it. If we don't make it, if we throw the ball and we don't make it, there should be four or five seconds left and maybe they have one play, but it shouldn't give them a lot of time.' So, we all discussed the strategy of what we wanted to do. Tom and Peyton came up with the play. It was well thought out and talked out, and everybody knew what we wanted to do and executed it well."
While the play was obviously important to win the game, it may also go down as one of the last truly memorable plays from Manning to Harrison in a career full of them.
Nov. 30: Another Mathis Miracle
A week after the escape from San Diego, Indianapolis was on the road again, this time in Cleveland to face the struggling Browns.
The Colts weren't able to get anything going offensively, managing only a Vinatieri field goal through three quarters. The Browns led, 6-3, with under 10 minutes left in the game.
Mathis' first career touchdown sunk the Browns
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Robert Mathis has already appeared on this list with his strip of Sage Rosenfels in Houston. But the pass-rushing specialist was ready to make another big play to seal his Pro Bowl credentials.
Browns quarterback Derek Anderson dropped back to pass, but Dwight Freeney sacked him and knocked the ball loose in the process. Mathis was Johnny-on-the-spot, and grabbed the ball, shed a would-be tackler and returned it 37 yards for the game's only touchdown.
The Colts would make the 10-6 score hold up to win their fifth straight game and improve to 8-4. The Colts would go on to finish the season with four more wins to wrap up the top spot in the AFC wild-card race.
It was the first career touchdown for Mathis, and the game-winning play — just one of several big plays he authored during the year — no doubt had a factor in his selection to his first-ever Pro Bowl at the end of the season.
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