It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
After limping to a dubious 6-6 record in the first three quarters of the season, the Colts hit their stride down the stretch, notching four critical victories in a row to overcome the surprising Jaguars and capture their seventh AFC South title in eight seasons.
Sunday's 23-20 triumph over the Titans to clinch the division used the same formula the Colts have been using during their recent roll. Peyton Manning was outstanding, throwing for 257 yards — helping him set a career-high with 4,700 passing yards this season — and a pair of touchdowns, the suddenly potent ground game gained more than 100 yards again and the run defense stifled one of the league's best runners, Chris Johnson, holding him to a meager 39 yards on 20 carries.
With the score knotted at 20 and less than two minutes in regulation, Dominic Rhodes coughed up a fumble near midfield with his team driving for the go-ahead score. But the "D," which had sacked Kerry Collins earlier in the fourth quarter, recovered a Collins fumble with 1:27 remaining at the Colts' 34-yard line. From there, it was like taking candy from a baby, as Manning found steadily improving rookie WR Blair White for 20 yards down the right sideline; handed the ball to Joseph Addai for six yards then hooked up with another one of the Colts' unsung heroes, TE Jacob Tamme, for 11 yards to set up Adam Vinatieri for the 43-yard game-winning kick from the right hash as time expired.
With the victory, the Colts earned the No. 3 seed and the right to host the sixth-seeded Jets in a prime-time rematch of the 2009 AFC championship game Saturday night.
The PFW Spin
Jets head coach Rex Ryan said on Monday that beating Manning, who has defeated Ryan-coached teams 5-of-6 times, including twice in the postseason, is "personal." That may be true, but we are certain that no team would choose Lucas Oil Stadium and the surging Colts as its destination and opponent in the first round. Here are a few reasons why the Colts match up extremely well against the Jets:
• The Jets rely on blitzing to get to the quarterback. We have seen countless times over the years, including the '09 AFC title game when Manning torched Ryan's "D" for 377 passing yards and a trio of TDs, that he is simply too good at reading blitzes and finding the open receiver. When Manning has struggled this season, it has been against zone coverages and crowded passing lanes. That is simply not in Ryan's DNA.
• The Colts' run defense has reinvented itself in the past month. MLB Gary Brackett is playing at a Pro Bowl level since recovering from turf toe. The pairing of Brackett with athletic rookie LBs Kavell Conner and Pat Angerer have helped the Colts' trademark speed find a new gear. FS Antoine Bethea is also making plays all over the field. Head coach Jim Caldwell went out of his way to compliment the performance of his game-changing safety on several occasions in recent weeks. Even without one of their best tackles in Dan Muir (chest) the past two weeks, Antonio Johnson, who was replaced in the starting lineup at the start of the season by ascending second-year DT Fili Moala, has played like a man on a mission. The chemistry between Johnson and Moala has been exceptional.
• Jets second-year QB Mark Sanchez can be rattled, and who better to do just that than Pro Bowl DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in a very hostile environment. Freeney will face a very tough matchup, with Pro Bowl OLT D'Brickashaw Ferguson at the top of his game this season, but Mathis' quickness could be too much to handle for ORT Damien Woody, who has not played in more than three weeks because of a knee injury.
The biggest concern for the Colts heading into their ninth consecutive postseason tournament has to be the health of the defense. Backup CBs Jacob Lacey and Justin Tryon have been exposed in recent weeks by less-talented pass catchers than Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. TE Dustin Keller, who operates best in the middle of the field, also presents a difficult matchup against the Colts' cover-2 scheme that allows yards over the middle. While RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson have cooled off, no one is going to mistake the Colts' run "D" for the Steelers or the Ravens. The Colts are holding out hope for the return of WLB Clint Session (forearm) and CB Kelvin Hayden, both of whom would provide a lift.
Ryan said beating Manning is personal. But the Colts also took it personally when all of their doubters wrote them off after an uncharacteristically slow start early in the season. Look at where they are now. Pretty familiar, huh?