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The playoffs often burn the strongest memories of a team's successes and failures in the minds of their fans. For many, the 2006 AFC Championship Game is considered the greatest moment in Indianapolis Colts history. Many of those same people likely believe that one of the franchise's lowest moments of a 41-0 Wild Card round loss to the New York Jets in January 2003. That loss was one of the worst in NFL playoff history. It ended Tony Dungy's first season as Colts coach and sent a team going through a serious transition period into an off-season of serious soul-searching.
The game was a nightmare from start to finish. After the Colts fought so hard to get into the post-season, needing a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Tom Coughlin's final game as Jags coach, they had to travel to the Meadowlands and face the Jets on a muddy, slick field. The Jets jumped out early, using screens and draws to create big plays that resulted in TDs. Turnovers and a big missed field goal by Mike Vanderjagt placed the Colts in a 24-0 halftime hole. When the second half started, the Jets pounded the football down the Colts throats. We all have vivid memories of Curtis Martin (who was one of the most under-rated backs of all time) blasting through Mike Peterson in a way not to different from how Shonn Greene lit up Eric Weddle of the San Diego Chargers last week.
I still consider that loss the worst of the Peyton Manning era.
Not many people really talk about this, but from a Colts historical perspective, that game against the Jets was a catalyst for much of the success the Colts have had this decade. After that game, the Jets and Colts seemed to go in completely opposite directions. From 2003 to today, the Jets made the playoffs three times in seven years. They've had three seasons of six wins or less and have burned through three head coaches, each with a completely different philosophy and style. They've cycled through quarterbacks named Chad Pennington, Vinny Testaverde, Brooks Bollinger, Kellen Clemons, and Brett Favre. Now, their starting QB is a rookie, Mark Sanchez.
Meanwhile, from 2003 to now, the Colts have made the playoffs each and every year, winning at least 12 games in every season (an NFL record). They won the Super Bowl in 2006, and this Sunday they will have play in their third AFCCG in seven years. The Colts are working under their second head coach in seven seasons. From 2003-2009, Tony Dungy ran the show, and for much of that run Jim Caldwell was his Assistant Head Coach. Now, Caldwell is the head coach, incorporating many of the same values and principles Dungy trumpeted while in Indy. The Colts have had one quarterback the entire time, Peyton Manning. He's won four NFL MVPs from 2003 to the present, which is an NFL record.
Now, some seven years after the 41-0 domination in the Meadowlands by the Jets, the Colts will meet them again for the right to play in the Super Bowl in Miami. for Jets fans, that 41-0 beatdown likely does not burn as hard in their memories as the events prior to and during Super Bowl III do. For them, the Joe Namath guarantee and the 16-7 Jets victory over the then-Baltimore Colts are the truly great moments in Jets lore. But for us modern Colts fans, the 41-0 loss in their house still stings even after even years.
Today, both teams are completely different, save players like Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, and the Jets Shaun Ellis. Back then, players like Mark Sanchez and Donald Brown were just barely in high school. And while many who play on Sunday were not around to play in the Meadowlands in 2003, one of the true redemptive opportunities the Colts have on Sunday is to avenge that 41-0 disaster.