Robert Mathis has been down that road before. And he doesn't want to go down it again.
It was 2005, with a team that the veteran Mathis called "arguably the best team we had that year since I've been here," the Colts hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the RCA Dome in week 12 on Monday Night Football. In that game, Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, and Marvin Harrison put on a show and the defense showed up in a big way as well. The Colts opened the game with an 80-yard scoring bomb from Manning to Harrison on their first offensive play and they never let up, winning comfortably by a score of 26-7 to improve to 11-0 on the year.
The Colts finished 14-2 on the year, earning the AFC's number one seed and being nearly everyone's hot pick to win the Super Bowl. Mathis isn't alone in saying that was the best Colts team - it absolutely was. And in the divisional round of the playoffs, the wild card Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) came to town after winning their first game.
And in that game, things didn't work out so well. In fact, at the end of the third quarter, the Steelers led 21-3. Peyton Manning then led his Colts on a furious comeback that drew his team within three points, 21-18, with just a few minutes left in the game. The Colts defense forced a Steelers punt and got the ball back at their own 18 yard line with 2:31 left in the game. The RCA Dome was rocking. The Colts went four and out, and on fourth down Manning was sacked for a loss of ten yards on a play where he had no chance. The Steelers took over at the 2 yard line with 1:20 left - game over. That is, until Gary Brackett forced a fumble and Nick Harper picked the ball up and took off running. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a diving tackle to prevent the touchdown, but Manning quickly had his team in field goal range for the most accurate kicker in NFL history to try a 46-yard attempt with 21 seconds left to send it to overtime.
Mike Vanderjagt missed it. The Steelers won, and they went on to win the Super Bowl.
What does that have to do now, other than rehashing terrible memories for Colts fans? It serves as a warning, and Robert Mathis is taking it as such.
"We beat them [the Steelers] Monday or Sunday Night Football pretty convincingly. They came back and beat us first, we were a one-and-done team," Mathis said Monday. "And that was arguably the best team we had that year since I've been here. So don't fall for the banana in the tailpipe. They're coming to play, so you better come to play. Bring you're A-game and your lunch pail."
This history lesson is especially timely now. Less than three weeks ago, the Colts traveled to Kansas City to play the Chiefs and won convincingly, 23-7. The Colts forced 4 turnovers and controlled the ball for over 38 minutes.
This weekend, the Chiefs come to Indianapolis in the wild card round of the playoffs. And, as Mathis so painfully remembers, just because you beat a team handily the first time in no way guarantees the same result the next time. In fact, it gives the loser of the first contest added motivation, which the Chiefs will have entering the game this Saturday.
And make no mistake about it, the Chiefs will be ready this weekend. Last time, they put the game on Alex Smith's shoulders and it worked out disastrously for them. This time, I'd be shocked if Jamaal Charles doesn't get a ton of touches. Last time, he still accounted for 144 total yards and the Chiefs' lone touchdown despite only getting 18 touches - averaging 8 yards every time he touched the ball. They'll utilize his skills more this time around.
Another Colts veteran, Adam Vinatieri, also shared Mathis's feelings as it relates to playing a team again (although Vinatieri was not yet in Indianapolis in 2005 - he arrived the following year after the Colts moved on from Vanderjagt following the miss):
"There's a lot of times you play teams multiple times in a season. Obviously all your divisional games, and they never turn out the same, ever. You can get two wins, you can get, some teams, whatever. The games are never played the same," Vinatieri said. "There's always different wrinkles, there's always different circumstances and situations. I think the fact that both teams, since we played them two weeks ago, we're familiar with them. I think they're familiar with us at this point personnel-wise. You're a fool to think that the game turns out the same way because it turned out and it was just two weeks ago. I know that our team is going to prepare and get ready to play and usually the games are different. Hopefully the outcome is the same, but they're never the same as the game progresses along. You have to be prepared and ready to go. It'll be different guys making different plays and different set of circumstances for the outcome of the game."
Both Mathis and Vinatieri stated point blank that their goal this year is to win the Super Bowl, but neither one of them is overlooking the Chiefs. They've both been around the block and they both know things never turn out the same way twice - Mathis having a painful example of it that surely resonates with Colts fans as well. It would be easy for a team that won by 16 points the first time around to get overconfident and think that the same thing will happen this time.
It surely won't turn out the same way this time, and the Colts fully realize that. And while the game will certainly be different, the Colts are determined to make sure that the result is the same.