With win, Colts stride toward vindication
After a sluggish start, rested Indy pummels Baltimore and advances to AFC title game
Originally Published: January 16, 2010By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com
Andy Lyons/Getty Images Gary Brackett (58) and the rest of the Colts' defense gave Ravens QB Joe Flacco little breathing room.New York Jets, squandering a perfect season in the process. So it was time to reach for the Rust-Oleum, right, and knock some of the malaise from the slow-starting Colts, who had not played a meaningful game in a month? Uh, not quite. The Colts found their stride in an eventual 20-3 trouncing of the Ravens, advancing to the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 24 here in the process. To hear quarterback Peyton Manning tell it, there was little reason for the Colts -- or their fans -- to fear otherwise. "To tell you the truth, I thought we were pretty sharp from the beginning," insisted Manning, who threw for 246 yards and two scores. "We set the tempo. People can have an opinion about the way we played it at the end of the season, but I think [the rest] was really important for us." Certainly, the Colts were the quicker team on both sides of the ball. After stumbling early, Indianapolis' offense scored touchdowns on the final two possessions of the first half. Manning tossed touchdown passes to wide receivers Austin Collie (10 yards) and Reggie Wayne (3 yards) to grab a commanding 17-3 lead at the intermission.
Said fellow end Robert Mathis, who also was rested for big chunks of the final two games: "It was more important going into the playoffs to be as close to 100 percent [healthy] as you can be." Of course, if the Colts fall short in the conference championship at home against the winner of the Sunday's New York Jets-San Diego Chargers divisional game and fail to gain a berth in Super Bowl XLIV, the critics will be back in full voice. They blasted rookie coach Caldwell and club president Bill Polian for frittering away the Colts' chances for a perfect 16-0 regular season. For this night, though, they were muted by a Colts team that outplayed the aggressive Ravens in virtually every facet. The Colts had 22 first downs, even with a ground game that has been miserable much of the season and gained only 42 yards on 25 carries Saturday. But Manning and his receivers -- Wayne (eight catches), Dallas Clark (seven), Pierre Garcon (five), and Collie (four) -- proved lethal most of the evening. Manning, who completed 30 of 44 passes and was rarely harassed by the Ravens' blitzing scheme, was his usual surgical self in picking on virtually every member of the Ravens' defensive backfield. The only glaring mistakes by Manning were two interceptions on the same third-quarter series by splendid free safety Ed Reed. The first pickoff ended when Reed fumbled the ball back to the Colts after a 38-yard return. The second interception was nullified by a pass interference penalty against nickelback Corey Ivy. The defense, which swarmed to the ball and penetrated the Ravens' backfield with regularity, forced four turnovers (all in the second half) and held the Ravens and their power running game out of the end zone. Rice had more rushing yards on his first run (83 yards) against the New England Patriots last week in a wild-card playoff victory than he had in the entire game against the Colts. In short, except for a few hiccups, the Colts appeared to be a well-oiled machine. It's a well-rested machine, too. "The time off, playing like we did and then having the bye week, benefited us a lot," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "Regardless of what people thought, or how it was [perceived] as affecting us, we came ready to play."
AP Photo/AJ MastPeyton Manning showed little sign of rust during the game and found adoring Colts fans afterward.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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