Before he was chosen with the 11th pick in the 2002 draft, Dwight Freeney, a 6'1" defensive end out of Syracuse, was thought by many teams to be too short to make an impact in the NFL. But he looked 10 feet tall on Sunday when he made the biggest play of the game for the Indianapolis Colts in their 29-27 victory over the Tennessee Titans. Correctly reading the play, Freeney reached high and deflected Steve McNair's pass on a two-point conversion attempt with 1:57 remaining. "The best part," Freeney said, stone-faced as he strode off the field at the Coliseum, "was that I didn't even have to jump."
As Super Bowl contenders the Colts have come up short in recent years, but by taking the fight to the Titans, rushing for 117 yards against the league's top-ranked run defense and forcing four fumbles (three on kick returns), they gained control of the AFC South at 10-3. It was one of the biggest wins in the six-year career of quarterback Peyton Manning, who became the front-runner for the league MVP award. And a much-maligned defense—the unit hasn't produced a Pro Bowl player since linebacker Duane Bickett in 1987—hung tough in the end. "We had to learn how to win the nitty-gritty games," second-year coach Tony Dungy said. "Now we can because our young guys are showing composure beyond their years."
The 25-year-old Freeney is so even-keeled, in fact, that Colts defensive tackle Larry Tripplett says he has to tap him on the shoulder during games to make sure he's awake. But Freeney's stoicism belies an inner fire that was stoked first by the predraft skepticism and then by his failure to win a starting job at the beginning of last season. When he did start, in the ninth game, Freeney made quite an impression, sacking Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb once and forcing three fumbles. Freeney was in the lineup for the rest of the season, finishing with 13 sacks, a team record, and nine forced fumbles. He has continued to excel this year; his fourth-quarter sack of McNair was his 11th of 2003, third best in the AFC.
With a quick burst and a knack for slapping the ball from the passer's hands, Freeney has a style reminiscent of his idol, former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. And as LT did, Freeney is making big plays at crucial moments; on Nov. 2 he sacked Miami Dolphins quarterback Brian Griese and forced a fumble to preserve a 23-17 road win. "Dwight's so fast off the snap, his size doesn't matter," Dungy says. "Once he's in the backfield, his instincts take over. As a coach, you emphasize the need for turnovers. But Dwight's ability to force fumbles is not something that's learned. That's just Dwight."
On Sunday the Colts, who were coming off a 38-34 loss to the AFC-leading New England Patriots, appeared in danger of a second straight heartbreaking setback until Freeney delivered again. Lining up for Tennessee's two-point conversion attempt, he recognized the Titans' formation from the teams' Week 2 meeting (also won by Indianapolis, 33-7) and knew that McNair would attempt a quick slant to his left—Freeney's side—to wideout Derrick Mason. Freeney took a step back, thrust his hands in the air and tipped the ball away.
Two wins in their final three games will give the Colts their first division crown since 1999. Asked about potential postseason scenarios, Freeney demurred, saying, "We could still miss the playoffs." Was there a reason to doubt the Colts' toughness any longer? "Doubts? About us?" he replied with a smile. "What do you think?"