January 16, 2011

2000: Eddie George & Titans Beat Colts in Peyton Manning’s Postseason Debut

The two teams that met in the AFC Divisional playoff game on January 16, 2000 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis had both gone 13-3 during the 1999 regular season and were on the upswing.

The host Colts, champions of the AFC East under Head Coach Jim Mora, had been in the AFC Championship game as recently as the 1995 season, but had gone 3-13 in both 1997 and ’98. Spurring the turnaround was second-year QB Peyton Manning, the first overall draft pick in 1998 who was rapidly developing into a star; rookie RB Edgerrin James, who ran for 1553 yards and caught 62 passes; and fourth-year WR Marvin Harrison, NFL leader in receiving yards with 1663 on his 115 catches. Tight ends Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard combined for 74 receptions. However, the defense was vulnerable against the run and the secondary intercepted only nine passes.

The visiting Tennessee Titans, under the guidance of Head Coach Jeff Fisher, had not been in the postseason since they were still the Houston Oilers back in 1993. The Titans placed second in the AFC Central and won an exciting, last-minute Wild Card playoff contest over the Buffalo Bills that came to be referred to as the “Music City Miracle”. The offense, directed by QB Steve McNair, was conservative and featured RB Eddie George (1304 yards). TE Frank Wycheck was the leading receiver (69 catches) while WR Kevin Dyson provided the downfield speed. The defense was key to the team’s success and featured rookie DE Jevon Kearse, aka “The Freak”, with his 14.5 sacks and included DT Josh Evans, CB Samari Rolle, and SS Blaine Bishop.

There were 57,097 in attendance for the first Colts home playoff game since the franchise had relocated to Indianapolis. Neither offense was able to score a touchdown in the first half, although they had opportunities. In the first quarter, the Colts had a first down at the Tennessee 25 yard line, but Manning threw two incompletions and the drive stalled. They had to settle for a 40-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt and led by 3-0 after one period of play.

Tennessee’s Al Del Greco kicked a 49-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter to tie the score. Indianapolis once again drove into Titans territory, reaching the 22, but lost yardage due to penalties and again had to go with a Vanderjagt field goal, again from 40 yards.

Tennessee again tied the score on a 37-yard Del Greco field goal. With time running out in the first half, the Colts put together their longest drive of the game, going 66 yards in 12 plays. It also included their longest play, a 33-yard pass completion to WR E.G. Green, but he broke his leg on the play and the game was stopped for about five minutes, which hindered the club’s momentum. After reaching the Tennessee 16 with eight seconds remaining in the half, Indianapolis once more turned to Vanderjagt, who kicked a 34-yard field goal. The Colts took a 9-6 lead into halftime.

On the third play of the second half, Eddie George (pictured at top), who had gained just 38 yards on 9 carries in the first half, ran 68 yards for a touchdown. It not only gave the Titans the lead at 13-9, but changed the momentum of the game as the Tennessee defense, which had played well, stepped up even further. The Titans held the Colts to just 51 yards passing and six rushing in the third quarter.

Five minutes into the fourth quarter, it appeared the Colts had made a big, game-changing play when WR Terrence Wilkins returned a punt an apparent 87 yards to the Tennessee three. However, while the officials on the field didn’t see it, he had stepped out of bounds in front of the Tennessee bench. Coach Fisher had difficulty notifying the officials that he wanted to challenge the ruling on the field (he didn’t have the red flag issued by the league with him) and had to use a timeout, but it proved to be worth it. Upon review, the replay confirmed that Wilkins did go out of bounds (pictured at left) and the ball was brought back 63 yards to the Indianapolis 33.

The deflated Colts went three-and-out and punted, much to the displeasure of the fans who had been cheering wildly one moment and were booing the next. WR Derrick Mason returned the kick 19 yards for the Titans to the Indianapolis 42 and the resulting drive culminated in a 25-yard Del Greco field goal. Instead of the Colts potentially retaking the lead, Tennessee extended its margin to 16-9.

On the next Indianapolis possession, Kearse deflected a third-down pass by Manning, forcing another punt. A fourth field goal by Del Greco put Tennessee up by 19-9, which meant Indianapolis would now need to score twice in the 4:19 remaining to retake the lead.

The Colts had to give up the ball on downs on their next possession, but got a break when George fumbled and DE Mark Thomas recovered. Indianapolis finally scored a touchdown on a 15-yard bootleg by Manning with 1:51 left, but with no timeouts left. The ensuing onside kick was recovered by WR Yancey Thigpen of the Titans, thus sewing up the 19-16 Tennessee win and sending the club to its first AFC Championship game in 20 years.

Total yardage was practically even, with Tennessee gaining just four yards more than the Colts (309 to 305) while Indianapolis led in first downs (19 to 13). The fumble by Eddie George was the only turnover of the game, although there were 16 penalties (9 by Tennessee, 7 flagged against Indianapolis).

Peyton Manning (pictured at right) wasn’t sacked but threw under pressure all game, and it showed in the statistics as he completed fewer than half of his passes – he was successful on 19 of 42 throws for 227 yards and no TDs as well as no interceptions. Marvin Harrison was limited to 5 catches for 65 yards while WR Jerome Pathon also had 5 receptions, for 44 yards. Edgerrin James ran for 56 yards on 20 carries, averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt.

For Tennessee, Eddie George was the star on offense as he gained 162 yards on 26 carries, including the long scoring run. Steve McNair completed 13 of 24 passes for 112 yards and ran for 35 yards on 7 attempts. No receiver for the Titans caught more than three passes (George was one of them), and the leader in yards was WR Chris Sanders with 38 on his two receptions. Jevon Kearse deflected two passes, but had no sacks. Craig Hentrich averaged 52 yards per punt, resulting in half of the Indianapolis drives starting from inside the 20 yard line.

Afterward, Eddie George recounted a conversation he had prior to the game with Coach Fisher. “He asked me to relive draft day back in 1996,” George said. “He told me to remember that he drafted me because he felt I could lead this team to where we are now. He challenged me to live up to expectations.” The former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State responded accordingly.

“We just came up short against a very good team,” Jim Mora said. “We had trouble making a play, particularly making big plays. It was a struggle all day, both sides of the ball.” The Colts had been a big-play team all year, but failed to make big plays against the Titans.

As to the big play that wasn’t, the punt return brought back upon review, Ken Dilger said, “I wouldn't say it took the heart out of us but I do think it deflated us a little.”

The Titans, after winning two close games in the playoffs, handily defeated Jacksonville for the AFC Championship. They lost to the Rams in a closely-fought Super Bowl. Tennessee went on to reach the postseason in three of the next four seasons, making it as far as the conference title game once more.

The Colts went to the playoffs again in 2000 under Mora, who ended up winless in six playoff games as a NFL head coach (he was far more successful in the USFL, where his Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars teams made it to the title game all three years and won the last two). With Manning at quarterback, Indianapolis would become a regular participant in the postseason from 2002 on.