Indianapolis Colts

Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts: The Five Worst Losses In Franchise History

This series commemorates the 160 Worst Losses in NFL History. We will examine the five worst losses of each franchise. The next stop(s) on the journey brings us to Baltimore…and Indianapolis.

Here’s the thing about this particular franchise. You know what the worst loss in Colts franchise history is?

THIS:

The Colts basically moving out of Baltimore in the middle of the night during March 1984 is the most embarrassing and shameful moment in franchise history…but since we’re only talking about games here this doesn’t qualify. Yet, it would be difficult to do something like this without acknowledging that hot mess decision.

Onto the list.

1. SUPER BOWL III 

Not only is this the worst loss in Colts history, at the time it was one of the worst moments in NFL history. Remember, the first three Super Bowls were the AFL/NFL Championship games – aka the game the NFL was supposed to clobber the hapless and arrogant AFL.

The Green Bay Packers represented the NFL with the utmost honor through the first two Super Bowls by outscoring the Chiefs and Raiders by a total of 67-24. Obviously, the New York Jets and their brash, loud-mouthed quarterback Joe Namath would be no match for the 18-point favorites from Charm City. 

Unfortunately for the Don Shula-led Colts, they saved their worst for last. The Jets diffused Earl Morrall (and a subbing Johnny Unitas) and the rest of the NFL champs in a stunning 16-7 victory. Namath’s bold pre-game proclamation of victory came true. 

Despite winning Super Bowl V two years later, the Colts never quite recovered from this loss for the remainder of their stay in Baltimore. 

 AFTERMATH

  • The Rosenbloom family wasn’t a fan of losing Super Bowl III. Following Baltimore failing to reach the playoffs in 1969, the wheels for Shula’s departure went into motion. The new Miami Dolphins were looking for a coach and inquired about Shula’s services to the Colts. While owner Carroll Rosenbloom was on vacation, Shula reached an agreement to become the new Dolphins head coach – without official permission coming from the Colts owner. Instead, his son Steve had approved the deal. Ultimately, Shula was allowed to leave for Miami
  • Shula’s departure paved the way for Don McCafferty to take the reins in Baltimore. He became the first rookie head coach in NFL history to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory when he led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V. 
  • Baltimore’s bitterness toward the Super Bowl III loss is palpable during the America’s Game feature on the 1970 Colts. Super Bowl V is routinely remembered as one of the worst Super Bowls of all-time despite Defensive lineman Bubba Smith said it was hard to look down at the ring for Super Bowl V without thinking about what they missed out on two years earlier. 

2. SUPER BOWL XLIV

Peyton Manning and the Colts bolted past the Ravens and Jets to reach their second Super Bowl in four seasons. It appeared that Manning might be ready to submit his résumé as the greatest quarterback in NFL history with a win over a team he was quite familiar with…the New Orleans Saints. 

Manning grew up watching his father Archie play quarterback for the Saints. However, a far different beast suited up at quarterback for New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV.  Drew Brees led the number one offense in the NFL into Miami for the first-ever Saints appearance on the Super Sunday stage. Nonetheless, the Saints entered the game as 4 1/2-point underdogs to the Colts, who finished with an NFL-best 14-2 regular season record. 

Indy led 10-0 through the first quarter but the game changed decidedly to open up the second half. New Orleans was set to kickoff to begin the second half. Instead, Saints head coach Sean Payton made one of the riskiest decisions in Super Bowl history. Kicker Garrett Hartley surprised the Colts with an onside kick. New Orleans recovered, scored a touchdown on the subsequent possession, and seized control of the game. 

Late in the fourth quarter trailing 24-17 and driving for the potential game-tying touchdown, Manning made his most costly mistake of the game. Cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in front of Manning’s pass intended for Reggie Wayne and ran it back 74 yards for six. Ball game. 

AFTERMATH

  • We didn’t know it at the time but Super Bowl XLIV turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Manning era in Indianapolis. A first-round playoff exit courtesy of the Jets during the ’10 postseason and a neck injury that sidelined him for the entire ’11 season led to Manning leaving Indianapolis to become the next quarterback of the Denver Broncos. 
  • The Colts turned the franchise’s reigns over to Stanford product Andrew Luck in 2012. Yet, he couldn’t do what the Colts managed to do under Manning – go to a Super Bowl. Luck retired prior to the ’19 season. 

3. 2005 AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS

Another in the series of “The Colts should have at least reached the Super Bowl this season.” Here’s what makes this loss extra painful for Colts fans. A day earlier, the New England Patriots finally relinquished their stranglehold over the NFL and lost in the divisional round to the Denver Broncos. Thus, officially signaling an end (momentarily) to their reign of terror as two-time defending Super Bowl champions. 

Thus, free of the Patriots and seemingly a legitimate threat to beat them in the AFC, what is the worst that could happen? 

Enter the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Pittsburgh lost to the Patriots in the 2004 AFC Championship Game after becoming the fourth team in league history to finish a regular season 15-1. A year later, the Steelers were a wild card team and reached Indianapolis on the wings of the infamous “Carson Palmer Tears His ACL” game against Cincinnati. 

The battle-tested Steelers proved to be a pain for the Colts during the divisional round. They carried a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter. Undeterred, Indianapolis rallied in the fourth.

Back-to-back touchdowns closed the deficit to three points. Then, two game-defining plays settled matters. Set to ice the game deep in Colts territory with just over a minute left, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis fumbled. Colts defensive back Nick Harper was seemingly on his way to score a go-ahead touchdown…until Ben Roethlisberger intervened. 

The Steelers quarterback barely tripped up Harper and stopped a disastrous score. Moments later, that “idiot kicker  Mike Vanderjagt missed a game-winning 46-yard field goal.

Once again, Indy’s Super Bowl dreams fell short. 

AFTERMATH

  • The Steelers won Super Bowl XL a few weeks later in Detroit. Roethlisberger, who had just completed his second season, earned his first Super Bowl ring….while Manning was still searching for his first. 
  • This loss marked the second time in Manning’s career his team earned a first-round bye and lost its opening playoff game. That theme became all too common for Peyton-led operations. The ’07 Colts, ’12 Broncos, and ’14 Broncos also fell in their divisional round opener. 
  • The heartbreak in Indianapolis would only be temporary. The Colts would finally win a Super Bowl one season later. 

4. 1977 AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS

The Ghost to the Post. 

The Oakland Raiders have plenty of legendary moments in their franchise’s satchel. This win during the ’77 playoffs on Christmas Eve is among the best. 

Entering the playoffs as defending Super Bowl champions, the Raiders weren’t quite the same team that ran roughshod over the NFL a season earlier. Meanwhile, the upstart Colts, who won the AFC East title, were capping a three-year run with at least 10 wins. 

Led by quarterback Bert Jones and Pro Bowl running back Lydell Mitchell, the Colts would try to earn their first AFC Championship Game appearance since 1971. 

After going back and forth for four quarters, ultimately, the Raiders offense proved to be too much. Late in the fourth quarter, Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler hit tight end Dave Casper on the famous Ghost to the Post play for a 42-yard gain to setup the game-tying field goal with just 29 seconds left. 

In overtime, the Stabler-Casper connection struck again. A 10-yard Casper touchdown catch in the second overtime ended the game and gave the Raiders a 37-31 win. 

Despite committing four turnovers and needing a miraculous over-the-shoulder reception by Casper, the Raiders advanced to the AFC Championship Game in the fifth-longest game in NFL history. 

AFTERMATH

  • This loss proved to be extra stinging for the Colts. It marked the final playoff game for the Colts in the city of Baltimore. As mentioned earlier, they would move to Indianapolis in 1984. 
  • Remarkably, it took 23 years for the Colts to play another home playoff game. 
  • The Raiders reached the AFC Championship Game but their bid to repeat fell short. The Broncos and their Orange Crush defense escaped with a 20-17 win. 

5. 2004 AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS

Ah yes….no list like this would be complete without mentioning the dynamic duo that ran roughshod against Manning and the Colts for nearly half of the 2000s before Tony Dungy’s crew finally fought back.

The ’04 playoffs were one of the most stacked playoffs in NFL history. While the eventual NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles ran the roost in the NFC, the AFC was on another level.

The AFC North champion Steelers entered the postseason after a 15-1 regular season; the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots were 14-2 and winners of the AFC East; and the Colts and Chargers each won their divisions with 12-4 marks.

By the time the divisional playoffs rolled around, the AFC South champion Colts entered their playoff game (a rematch from the controversial 2003 AFC Championship Game) against the Patriots as a mere 1-pt underdog to the champs.

Yet, the game turned into another nightmarish performance in Foxborough. New England limited the NFL’s highest-scoring offense – which had just scored 49 points a week earlier against Denver –  to just three points in a 20-3 victory.

Indianapolis turned it over three times while the defending champs played a clean and efficient game. 

Once again, the Patriots got the best of the Colts.  

AFTERMATH

  • Despite rule changes essentially brought on by the Colts following the ’03 AFC title game that seemed to greatly benefit passing offenses including Indy, New England – a more balanced outfit – won Super Bowl XXXIX. The ’03-’04 Patriots remain the last team to win consecutive Super Bowls. 
  • The Colts turned the tide against the Patriots by winning in Foxborough during the ’05 regular season. Their slow march to Super Bowl bliss in January 2006 was underway. 

HONORABLE MENTION: 

2002 AFC Wild Card Game – The Jets clobbered the Colts 41-0. Let me repeat, the Colts lost a playoff game to the Jets 41-0!!!! It’s still one of the biggest blowouts in NFL postseason history. 

2007 AFC Divisional Playoffs – Billy Volek subbed in for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who tore his ACL during the game. The Chargers were also without star running back LaDainian Tomlinson for a portion of the game due to a knee injury. It didn’t matter. The Chargers won 28-24 anyway in the final game at the Hoosier Dome. 

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