With 53 seconds remaining on Saturday night, and the greatest kicker in the history of the postseason coming on to attempt a 50-yard field goal that would give his team a 16-14 lead, it appeared the Colts would somehow find a way to extend their improbable season another week.
PK Adam Vinatieri split the uprights perfectly with a booming kick that would have been good from 60 yards out. The only thing standing in the way of the Colts and a trip to Heinz Field to battle the idle Steelers in the divisional round was struggling QB Mark Sanchez's ability to engineer a game-winning drive — and CB-KR Antonio Cromartie.
Cromartie, who already had returned the opening kickoff of the second half 41 yards after Brad Smith injured his groin earlier in the game, fielded the ensuing kick from Pat McAfee one yard deep in the Jets' endzone. After narrowly escaping a defender's grasp around the 15, Cromartie exploded through an opening down the right sideline, taking the air out of raucous Lucas Oil Stadium with a 47-yard return and putting his team in business with 45 seconds remaining.
Sanchez, who was intercepted once and sailed at least two would-be TD passes over open receivers' heads in the first half, completed three clutch throws — the most critical being an 18-yard Braylon Edwards reception — to set up Nick Folk for the 32-yard game-winner.
The PFW Spin
That the Colts were even in position to win this game despite their dismal second-half performance on defense and special teams is a testament to their resiliency. After not doing much in the first 30 minutes, the Jets dominated both the line of scrimmage and the play clock in the second half. New York's first two drives of the second half — both capped by one-yard LaDainian Tomlinson TD runs — combined for 27 plays, 150 yards and took 15:06 off the clock. Tomlinson, Greene and Gang Green's O-line imposed their will on the diminished Colts' "D" and there was nothing it could do to stop it.
Indy's special-teams unit was no better. In addition to allowing Cromartie's two big returns, it was also responsible for a running-into-the-kicker penalty by Taj Smith late in the fourth quarter. The Colts still got the ball back after stopping the Jets, but the penalty resulted in New York continuing to beat up the "D" before pinning the Colts back further.
And despite the nightmarish second half, the Colts had their chances. Indy failed to convert on four different 3rd-and-1 opportunities. It had no problem picking up three 3rd-and-long chances with unlikely running plays, but couldn't capitalize in short-yardage downs. Surely, the failures kept team president Bill Polian lying awake last night after his team's similar struggles in the Super Bowl loss to the Saints.
In the end, the Colts simply ran out of gas. After expending so much energy overcoming injuries and fighting their way into the playoffs, there was not enough left in the tank in the second half Saturday night against a more talented Jets squad.
Rex Ryan finally got his victory over Manning. And he earned it, departing from his usual blitz-happy ways and daring Manning to run the football against a sea of defensive backs. It was the same formula that most teams concocted against the Colts this season, and we commend Ryan for limiting his stubbornness and outcoaching Jim Caldwell.
But the Colts are going to heal and reload this offseason, as they always do, and we suspect this won't be the last postseason meeting between Ryan's Jets and Manning's Colts.