Posted: Sunday December 19, 1999 08:09 PM
INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- The offense grabbed the headlines most of the season, but veteran linebacker Cornelius Bennett and unheralded nickel back Tony Blevins helped make a defensive stand that enabled the Indianapolis Colts to clinch their first AFC East title in 12 years.
After the Washington Redskins scored a late touchdown and recovered the ensuing onside kick, Bennett and Blevins made key defensive plays to preserve a 24-21 victory for the Colts in a battle of division leaders.
The Colts (12-2) extended their winning streak to 10 games and sealed a first-round bye in the playoffs along with their first division title since 1987. After finishing 3-13 each of the past two seasons, the Colts matched the best turnaround in NFL history. The nine-win improvement ties the 1929 New York Giants and 1963 Oakland Raiders.
"Well, it's been a fast turnaround," said second-year quarterback Peyton Manning. "It's definitely come faster than we expected. We knew we'd be a better football team this year, but we didn't know that we would be this good."
"It feels incredible," said Colts tackle Adam Meadows. "I was 6-26 in my first two years and now we are 12-2 and AFC (East) champs. We have two weeks left. Our business is not done yet."
Manning flipped a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ken Dilger on the first play of the fourth quarter and Edgerrin James scored on a two-yard run with 5:57 left to give the Colts a seemingly comfortable 24-13 lead.
However, the Redskins fought back and pulled within 24-21 on a six-yard touchdown run by Brian Mitchell and a two-point conversion pass from Brad Johnson to Michael Westbrook with 1:24 remaining.
Washington then executed a perfect onside kick to regain possession. With the left side overloaded, Brett Conway's kick took a high bounce after it crossed 10 yards and James Thrash caught the ball for the Redskins at the Washington 46.
On the next play, Bennett came flying in on a blitz and plastered Johnson, forcing a fumble which was recovered by Redskins lineman Tre' Johnson for a seven-yard loss. Mitchell caught an eight-yard pass on the next play to the Washington 47.
Facing a 3rd-and-9, Brad Johnson threw a pass for Albert Connell, who ran an out pattern on the right side, but Blevins timed the route impeccably and nearly intercepted the pass, knocking it down with two hands.
On 4th-and-9, Johnson was forced to quickly unload a pass to the left in the face of a fierce pass rush and the ball sailed out of bounds, well over the head of Westbrook, who was blanketed by cornerback Tyrone Poole.
As has been the case throughout the season, the trio of Manning, James and Marvin Harrison -- virtual locks for Pro Bowl berths this week -- starred for the Colts.
Manning completed 23-of-37 passes for 298 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown to James, with an interception. Along with the two scores, James rushed for 89 yards on 22 carries and had four receptions for 59 yards. Harrison set a club record with his eighth 100-yard game of the season, catching nine passes for 117 yards.
Defensive end Chad Bratzke, a key offseason addition along with Bennett, made his final Pro Bowl claim with three sacks, giving him 12 for the season.
"Chad is an outstanding football player, he's had an excellent year," said Colts coach Jim Mora. "I hope he gets some recognition. Based upon how he's played this year he steps up in big games, he plays good all the time."
Bennett, a member of five Super Bowl teams, finished with nine tackles and a sack.
Afterwards, many of the Colts players celebrated on the field with the fans at the RCA Dome. Indianapolis will host its first playoff game on the weekend of January 15-16. The Colts moved here from Baltimore in 1984.
"It was really just a chance for us to thank our fans because they have been a big part of our success all season," Manning said. "We know there's plenty of football left to be played. We definitely have one more home game."
Despite the loss, Washington (8-6) retained its one-game lead over Dallas and the New York Giants in the NFC East. The Cowboys and Giants both lost today.
"I thought it was a hell of a football game," said Redskins coach Norv Turner. "We had chances. They obviously had chances.
They made a couple of more plays than we did."
Washington held a 13-10 halftime lead, but played the entire second half without running back Stephen Davis, the NFL's leading rusher. Davis sprained his left ankle late in the second quarter and did not return.
Davis, who also leads the league with 17 touchdowns, rushed for 70 yards on 14 carries in the first half before leaving with two minutes left in the second quarter. X-rays proved negative.
Skip Hicks replaced Davis and had 39 yards on 11 carries.
"My foot just got stuck on the turf," Davis said. "I wanted to come out in the second half, but my ankle wouldn't let me. The trainers told me it was a low ankle sprain. It will be day to day and I should be back next week."
Davis' performance today raised his total to 1,405 rushing yards, setting a single-season club record. Terry Allen held the Redskins record with 1,353 yards in 1996.
"It hurts to lose a game like this because we fought hard and felt we were the better team," Westbrook said. "We lost a lot of momentum and it made a big difference when we lost Stephen."
Johnson completed 16-of-30 passes for 237 yards and was sacked four times. Connell had four catches for 97 yards.
James made a highlight film one-handed catch for his 37-yard touchdown in the first quarter. On a 2nd-and-19 play, James streaked down the left sideline, racing past veteran corner Darrell Green, and hauled in Manning's pass with one hand to give the Colts a 7-0 lead with 6:48 left in the first quarter.
The Redskins responded with a nine-play, 55-yard drive with Davis rushing for 22 yards on five carries. But after reaching the Indianapolis 7, Irving Fryar was stopped three yards shy of the first-down marker after catching a pass at the 5. Conway then converted a 23-yard field goal with 2:11 left in the quarter.
Washington took its first lead when Johnson connected with Connell on a 48-yard touchdown with 11:20 left in the second quarter. Connell ran a post from the right sideline to the middle and made a leaping catch over cornerback Jeff Burris.
The Colts answered with an eight-play, 48-yard drive which resulted in a game-tying, 43-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt with 7:20 left in the second quarter. The big play was a 22-yard pass from Manning to Dilger.
The Redskins again relied heavily on Davis, who produced 41 yards on seven carries in another scoring drive which ended in a 32-yard field goal by Conway with 1:58 remaining in the half.
After a scoreless third quarter, Manning hit Dilger in the back of the end zone with a one-yard pass to give Indianapolis a 17-13 lead. The touchdown capped a seven-play, 80-yard drive, which featured a 28-yard catch by Harrison.
The Redskins drove 50 yards to the Indianapolis 30, but a 49-yard field goal attempt by Conway was blocked by Jason Belser and returned 27 yards by Burris.
"I just saw Tyrone (Poole) and Belser come off the edge and they were coming pretty good," Burris said. "I heard the ball get blocked and I saw it flutter up and I just wanted to catch it."
James then took over, catching an 11-yard pass and rushing three times for 29 yards to the Washington 11. After a nine-yard pass from Manning to Harrison, James bounced off linebacker Kurt Gouveia for his two-yard touchdown with 5:57 left.
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