Peyton Manning called his number on a quarterback sneak from the one-yard line with just 50 seconds remaining as the Indianapolis Colts escaped the Meadowlands with a 31-28 victory over the New York Jets. The contest, played before another sold out crowd, was inarguably one of the most exciting games played at the Jets' home in years.
"It is a disappointing loss, but the Colts have won a lot of games over the last six years for a very good reason," said Jets head coach Eric Mangini. "They are a very good team. It just shows us we need to keep working, keep focusing, keep coming back with the same consistent approach, and we'll keep making progress."
A story full of suspense which saw five fourth quarter lead changes didn't reach a conclusion until the Colts finally halted a multi-lateral scoring attempt at the final gun. Veteran wide receiver Laveranues Coles was on the receiving end of two of the laterals and was injured on the frantic finish which saw a Colts' defender eventually recover a Nick Mangold pitch outside the Indy 20.
"Our team kept on fighting until the last play," said quarterback Chad Pennington. "I thought we were going to score on that last play with eight seconds left. We will just keep fighting and build on the foundation we have built."
Manning's late magic came after the Jets had taken a 28-24 lead on a 103-yard Justin Miller kick return.
"I have to credit my return team. We worked on that all offseason and all preseason," Miller said. "We worked on just making a block. It doesn't have to be a great block – just get in the way. That's what I have asked them for all year and we went out and did that today."
The magnificent return was the longest in franchise history and seemingly put the Jets in good position. They were up four points and Manning had no timeouts at his disposal, but the sure-fire Hall of Famer completed six of eight passes on his final drive including a 15-yard strike to Reggie Wayne on the play before the sneak. Manning emphatically spiked the ball following his goal line push. The winning drive took only 1:30.
"He is one of the best and that's an explosive offense," Mangini said of Manning and the Colts. "He scores a lot of points and they are very effective in that situation. We needed to play as soundly as we possibly could there. He is good at what he does and we needed to execute better."
The Jets received a bad break on the ensuing kickoff as Martin Gramatica's squib kick bounced by a number of players including rookie return man Leon Washington. Instinctively, Washington picked up the ball which appeared to cross his own goal line and ran it out before getting trampled at the Jets' two-yard line. With only one timeout and 48 seconds, the Jets moved to their 32-yard line before a never-say die multiple lateral play advanced the ball more than 50 yards.
"It is a tough loss, but you have to take your hats off to them. They stuck in there and made the plays when they had to make the plays," said defensive end Shaun Ellis.
On a sunny day at the Meadowlands, both teams played an entertaining first half and went to intermission tied at 14. The Colts, now with an unblemished 4-0 record, jumped out quickly but the Jets answered in a big way on touchdowns from Jerricho Cotchery and Kevan Barlow.
For the second consecutive game, the Jets fell behind 7-0 before many spectators had taken their seats. All week long, many pundits anticipated the match-up between Jets' rookie left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Colts' All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney. But early Sunday, Robert Mathis switched with Freeney and lined up over Ferguson on the Jets' third play from scrimmage. Using a speed rush, Mathis got by Ferguson and recorded a strip-sack of Chad Pennington. Josh Thomas recovered for the Colts at the Jets' 26 and the Colts scored four plays later with Dominic Rhodes cashing in from six yards out.
In an interesting twist, the Colts came out determined to run the football. Indianapolis ran on 10 of its first 13 offensive plays, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. The Jets gained only seven yards in the first quarter, but the Colts were credited with -3 yards net passing as Ellis picked up his first sack of the season.
The Jets got their offensive feet under them early in quarter two. They finally crossed into enemy territory on Tim Dwight's second reception of the season, a 15-yard gain coming on third down after Pennington bought some time out of the pocket. Cedric Houston followed it up with a tough 13-yard run before Pennington hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 33-yard touchdown. Pennington drew a Colt defender offside and then spotted a wide open Cotchery. The N.C. State alum finished a determined run to the goal line with a stiff-arm of DB Antoine Bethea.
After a successful extra point attempt, kicker Mike Nugent pounded the ball to the turf on an onside kick. The Colts were caught retreating and Jets' safety Kerry Rhodes recovered without much difficulty. That courageous call kept the faithful on their feet while euphoric special teams coach Mike Westhoff waved his fist on the sideline.
"It was a pretty neat call," said center Nick Mangold. "It was pretty exciting to be able to get right back out on the ball."
Pennington took advantage of the short field, leading the Jets on an 11-play, 57-yard scoring possession. Barlow, who once again received the start at running back, plowed in from the Indy one and gave his club a 14-7 lead.
Both rookie back Leon Washington and veteran receiver Tim Dwight were instrumental on the second scoring possession. Facing a 4th and 1 at the Indy 30, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer lined up the versatile Brad Smith behind center and Pennington out wide. Smith, running the option, pitched to Washington and the speedy Florida State alum made something out of nothing, juking by Colts' defenders for three yards. Later Dwight would keep the drive going with another third down conversion and an unnecessary roughness penalty moved the Jets closer. A third down pass interference penalty – this one charged to Bethea – set up the first Barlow score.
Manning waited a long time for the ball and he was ready when the Colts got it back. The All-Pro led a tying drive, beginning it with a 41-yard toss to Wayne. Indianapolis converted two third conversions before Joseph Addai knotted everything from two yards out.
Momentum swayed back to the Jets in the second half after Ellis racked up his second sack of Manning. The Green & White took over and went on another long drive, holding onto the ball for 16 plays and moving from their 21-yard line to the Indy two. On 4th and goal, Pennington rolled to his right but had nobody open. He threw a floater into the right corner of the end zone which was intercepted. It was the seventh-year passer's first red zone interception of his career. Mangini said the play gave Pennington a run, pass option on the perimeter.
"The plan was to score touchdowns – not field goals," Mangini said of his decision to go for it on 4th and goal. "They are an explosive offense and our goal was to put it in. We were committed to that."
The Colts took advantage of the turnover, getting three points on a Gramatica chip shot. Defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson prevented a touchdown on third down as he stuffed Dominic Rhodes at the one-yard line.
Trailing 17-14 in the fourth, the Jets had an answer to their deficit. Barlow picked up his second touchdown of the day, scoring from five yards out to culminate an 11-play, 62-yard drive.
Five minutes later, Manning gave his team the lead on a two-yard scoring pass to reserve tight end Bryan Fletcher. But the Colts would hold onto that lead for a grand total of 19 seconds as Miller moved from end zone to end zone on an electrifying return.
"We started out the first quarter of the season 2-2, so we're not in bad shape," Pennington said. "But we're definitely disappointed in this locker room. After watching film tomorrow, we'll shift our focus to Jacksonville."
Next weekend, the Jets hope to raise their '06 road record to 3-0 in Jacksonville against the Jaguars.
NotesThe final stat sheet looked pretty similar as the Colts picked up 26 first downs and 352 total yards while the Jets amassed 23 first downs and 321 total yards. Both teams were effective on third downs – the Colts went seven of 12 while the Jets were seven of 13. Manning finished the day 21 of 30 for 217 yards with the one scoring pass and Pennington completed 17 of 23 for 207 yards with one TD and the one pick… Indianapolis was charged with a number of critical penalties and totaled 10 overall… Cedric Houston led the Jets in rushing, carrying 12 times for 49 yards. But Houston left the game in the fourth quarter. Indy received good production from its two back attack, getting 84 yards from Addai and 75 yards from Rhodes… Laveranues Coles was quietly productive once again, catching six for 81 yards. On the other side of the ledger, Marvin Harrison grabbed seven balls for 79 yards… Justin Miller led Jets' defenders with nine solo tackles…. Linebackers Eric Barton and Jonathan Vilma co-led the Jets in total tackles, picking up 11 apiece.