Colts Defense Becomes Chiefs' Nightmare

After listening for a week about how Larry Johnson and the Chiefs were their worst nightmare, the Colts defense turned the tables on the Chiefs offense, leaving them stunned and inept during a 23-8 Indianapolis victory.

Within minutes after the Denver Broncos lost to the San Francisco 49ers last weekend, NFL analysts like Shannon Sharpe were proclaiming that the resulting Chiefs-Colts matchup was "The Colts' worst nightmare." 

And he wasn't alone in that sentiment. NFL analysts, reporters and fans across the country were undeniably guilty of piling on.

But on Saturday night at the RCA Dome, the Indianapolis Colts bid a fond farewell to their supposed Boogeyman, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson  -- and the rest of his entourage to boot -- with a solid 23-8 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Colts defense arose like a slumbering giant, denying the Chiefs offense of even a single first down until almost five minutes into the third quarter. And they allowed them just seven first downs by the end of the game.

After all the anticipation and hullabaloo about Johnson easily racking up 200, maybe even 300 yards against a Colts run defense that was allowing a league-worst 173 yards per game, Indianapolis hit their gaps quickly and efficiently, disrupting him in the backfield before he could get any real momentum. Johnson finished the night with a paltry 32 yards on 13 carries for a 2.5 yards per carry average -- his second-worst outing of the season. The Indy defense was so effective that his longest run of the day was for just six yards.

Bo Schobel and Robert Mathis sack Chiefs QB Trent Green (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
And while they swarmed over Johnson, they simply stifled Chiefs quarterback Trent Green. Defensive end Dwight Freeney logged two of the team's four sacks on the night and forced a fumble. The pressure increasingly got to Green as he threw two second-half interceptions. He was first picked off after getting hit by Colts defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, which forced the ball to be badly under-thrown. Safety Bob Sanders made the interception and returned it 17 yards. And as the Chiefs tried to mount a late fourth-quarter attack, rookie safety Antoine Bethea timed his move on a Green pass perfectly to snatch it away for a game-clinching interception.

Green finished the night 14 of 24 for 107 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. His sole score of the night came on a 6-yard pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez with just eight seconds remaining in the third quarter.

The Colts offense moved at will, posting 435 total yards versus just 126 by the Chiefs. Both of the Colts' running backs contributed to the success with a combined 188 yards on the ground. Rookie Joseph Addai had 122 yards (4.9 yards per carry) while Dominic Rhodes added 68 more (5.2 yards per carry). It was their second-best combined rushing total of the season, only bested by their 239 yards against the Eagles in late November.

For Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, it was an odd night. He completed 30 of his 38 pass attempts and spread the ball around effectively to eight different receivers. His top target of the night was tight end Dallas Clark, who repeatedly exploited the middle zone of the Chiefs' defense, catching a career-high nine passes for a season-best 103 yards.

And when the Chiefs closed the gap to 16-8 at the end of the third quarter, Manning calmly and methodically engineered a 9-play drive that gave the Colts a more comfortable 23-8 lead that they never relinquished.

But Manning's Ghost of Playoffs Past, cornerback Ty Law, was a haunting presence as he made two interceptions which were clearly unsettling. It appeared for the first time in a very long time, Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison were out of sync. Usually executing in a manner that reeks of some bizarre telepathy, the duo clearly had their wires crossed Saturday night as Harrison twice cut away from where Manning threw the ball. With Law lagging behind Harrison, he was the beneficiary of the errant throws.

Law's first interception nearly allowed the Chiefs to pull ahead early in the game with the Colts leading by just six points. But a big hit by rookie linebacker Freddie Keiaho stopped Johnson short of a touchdown on a second-down run. On the next play, Green was toppled when one of his own linemen stepped on his foot. And then the unthinkable happened. Chiefs kicker Lawrence Tynes hit the left upright on a 23-yard field goal attempt. During the regular season, he made all eleven of his attempts inside of thirty yards.

Jarrad Page of the Chiefs returns an interception against the Colts (AP Photo/Tom Strattman)
Manning's third interception, an attempted touchdown pass to Aaron Moorehead, was the only one that appeared to be a moment of bad judgment by the Colts quarterback, simply trying to force a reception that just wasn't there. Jarrad Page made the interception for Kansas City.

A further touch of irony in this game was the performance of the Colts' special teams. During the season, both kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter Hunter Smith were the nearly flawless performers with Vinatieri even being forced to make tackles much too frequently on kickoff coverarage. But on Saturday night, they both committed key miscues while the coverage teams excelled.

Vinatieri had one of his kickoffs bounce out of bounds, putting the Chiefs in business at their own 40-yard line. And they took advantage of that field position for their only touchdown of the game.

Then, with just over five minutes remaining in the game and the Colts leading by 15 points, Smith fumbled a punt opportunity, turning the ball over to the Chiefs at the Indy 37-yard line. But the defense came up with three sacks on the next five plays. And on the third one, as Robert Mathis and Bo Schobel converged on Trent Green, he fumbled the ball. Josh Thomas recovered for the Colts to end the threat.

Head coach Tony Dungy mentioned earlier in the week that he was going to insert some former special teams stars like defensive end Robert Mathis and safety Marlin Jackson back onto the coverage units. And the impact was noticeable. Mathis had both a tackle and an assist and the overall coverage and hitting was much better. Second-year linebacker Tyjuan Hagler's monstrous hit on Dante Hall's punt return attempt with less than four minutes to play added the proper punctuation mark to the coverage units' performance for the night.

With the win, the Colts will travel to Baltimore next weekend to take on the Ravens, who finished the regular season with a 13-3 record in the AFC divisional playoffs.

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