For a month, they played it safe, nearly too safe, calling off the dogs in the second half of that fateful New York Jets' loss. They not only risked the loss of all their momentum, but they risked incurring the wrath of fans still stung by The Decision. Lose this one, and it wasn't going to be pretty.
Saturday night, though, when it counted in this divisional playoff game against The Professional Football Franchise From Baltimore (TPFFFB), the Indianapolis Colts stopped playing it safe. Two big decisions, a 20-3 victory, and one berth in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday against either the San Diego Chargers or the New York Jets:
• Tied at 3-3 late in the second quarter, the Colts had a fourth-and-4 at the Baltimore 35-yard line. At one level, it's something of a no-brainer. A 52-yard field-goal try is a longshot and a miss would give Baltimore good field position. A punt moves the ball 15-30 yards deeper into Ravens territory, not a huge advantage.
Still, head coach Jim Caldwell made the decision without hesitation.
"Any time your head coach decides to go for it in that situation, the offense feeds off that challenge, that opportunity," Peyton Manning said. "You want to make him happy with his decision." Manning found Joseph Addai out of the backfield, and Addai made it to the first-down marker by a couple of inches.
• Then, after a Baltimore 3-and-out aided by the Ravens' odd play-calling, the Colts took control of the ball with 1:26 left in the half and pushed the envelope again. With seven seconds left, no timeouts and the ball on the Ravens' 4-yard line, Stover and holder Pat McAfee began their way onto the field for an apparent field goal try. They promptly did a U-turn.
Was it Manning's call? Caldwell's call? This much was clear: Manning, who was taken off the field back on Dec. 27, wasn't coming to the sidelines this time. This was the chance to step on Baltimore's throat, put away a game that was being dominated by Indianapolis' hungry defense.
Manning quickly found Reggie Wayne at the goal line. It was 17-3, and it was, for all intents and purposes, over.
"To me, there wasn't even a thought to kick the field goal," Manning said. "Whatever we run, it's not going to take seven seconds. The problem was, they were dropping eight guys into coverage, which is normally a great time to run the ball. But with no timeouts, you have to get it into the endzone with a pass.
"We kind of came up with that play as we were breaking the huddle, me and Reggie (Wayne) and Dallas (Clark), kind of like, 'Hey, Peyton, what do you want to run here.' It was like recess, the playground, if you will. Me and Reggie kind of came up with that as we broke the huddle."
The Colts are 60 minutes from a Super Bowl because they took risks and because Indy's perpetually underestimated defense played the kind of inspired ball they've been playing all season. Every week it seems, the Colts' next opponent comes in with the idea of ramming it down their throat, controlling the line of scrimmage, the clock and the game. Statistically, they're not overwhelming, finishing just 24th in the league in run defense. Those numbers, though, are skewed; those last two meaningless games, they gave up 202 yards on the ground to the Jets and 248 to the Bills.
With the exception of a troubling Ravens' field-goal drive to start the game , the Colts' defenders played like a group harnessing a month's worth of anger issues.
Gary Brackett played like a Pro Bowler. Daniel Muir controlled the middle of the line of scrimmage. Dwight Freeney made child's play of Baltimore's offensive line. Raheem Brock was all over the field, way down the field, in fact, when he blasted Rice and forced a third-quarter fumble. Antoine Bethea made like Baltimore's Ed Reed and intercepted a late Joe Flacco pass.
The biggest defensive play, though, might have been made by an offensive player, wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who ran down Ed Reed after a third-quarter interception and forced a fumble that Dallas Clark recovered. After the game, Garcon proudly displayed the Haitian flag, reminding everybody of the real-world disaster that has befallen his wounded country.
Understand this, though: A performance like this one won't be good enough next week. Doesn't matter if it's the Jets or Chargers, this kind of game, especially on offense, won't cut it. Next week, they won't get as many gifts as they received Saturday from the Ravens and the officials. Baltimore self-destructed with penalties and fumbles, including a tough (but correct) call on Ray Lewis when he laid a helmet-to-helmet hit on Austin Collie. Nor can they win without being able to run the football.
They moved on.
For the first time in the Manning Era, the decision to rest down the stretch didn't bite them in the posterior. They had been 0-3 after the bye. They are now 1-3. They didn't exactly exorcise a demon Saturday night, but maybe they shooed away a gremlin or two.
They dared to be great.
Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star.