Despite very different outcomes, the Indianapolis Colts, and namely the 1995 and 2006 Horseshoe teams, have participated in two of the Top 10 all-time NFL conference championship games per CBS Sports—and their ranking of the 20 best such games in league history:
6. 1995 AFC Championship: Steelers 20, Colts 16
The Steelers were coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Chargers in the ‘94 AFC title game. Against the Colts, they found themselves trailing 16-13 after Harbaugh hit Turner on a perfectly thrown pass in single coverage.
Facing a fourth-and-3 late in the game, the Steelers kept their season alive when Neil O’Donnell hit Andre Hastings for a 9-yard gain. On the next play, O’Donnell threw deep to Ernie Mills, who tiptoed the sideline for a 37-yard gain. The catch set up Bam Morris’ go-ahead touchdown.
With 1:34 left, Harbaugh drove the Colts from their own 16 to the Steelers’ 29-yard line. Only 5 seconds were left on the clock when Harbaugh heaved a Hail Mary into the Steelers’ end zone. The ball was deflected several times before falling into the chest of Colts receiver Aaron Bailey. Bailey, who was falling on the ground as the ball hit his chest, was unable to close his arms around the ball before it hit the turf.
The incomplete pass gave the Steelers their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1979. But if Bailey had been able to secure the catch, it would have undeniably gone down as one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
3. 2006 AFC Championship: Colts 38, Patriots 34
After recent playoff losses to the Patriots, the Colts found themselves staring at a 21-3 deficit midway through the second quarter of the 2006 AFC championship game. But following Asante Samuel’s 39-yard pick six of Peyton Manning, the Colts scored the game’s next 18 points that included a touchdown pass from Manning to lineman Dan Klecko. The Patriots went back ahead before another Colts lineman, center Jeff Saturday, tied the score after pouncing on a fumble in the end zone.
Trailing 34-31 with 3:49 left, two completions from Manning to Reggie Wayne sandwiched Manning’s 32-yard completion to Bryan Fletcher. Fletcher, a seldom-used tight end, had lobbied for Manning to look his way earlier in the game. After reaching the Patriots’ 11-yard line, Manning called three straight runs for rookie running back Joseph Addai. Addai’s third carry resulted in the go-ahead touchdown with 1:02 left.
Brady, whose late-game prowess was already legendary by this point, passed his team beyond midfield before throwing a game-ending interception to cornerback (and fellow Michigan Man) Marlin Jackson. The Colts would go onto win their lone Super Bowl with Manning under center. In Denver, Manning would win two more AFC title games against the Patriots while retiring with a 3-1 record against the Brady/Belichick Patriots in conference championship games.
In 1995, the Colts narrowly missed a Super Bowl appearance in the closing seconds as starting quarterback Jim Harbaugh’s (i.e., Captain Comeback) spirited late come-from-behind attempt on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers came up just short as his Hail Mary attempt was unable to be successfully hauled in by wideout Aaron Bailey in the end zone—which no doubt would’ve gone down as one of the greatest plays in NFL history, given the late game heroics and what was clearly at-stake for both teams. The Steelers went on to lose to the dynasty Dallas Cowboys 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX.
Of course, Colts fans remember the 2006 AFC Title Game against their arch-nemesis New England Patriots a lot more fondly, as those great Peyton Manning led teams were finally able to get over the hump and beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s rival squad. However, the win wasn’t always pretty or even realistically believable, given that Indianapolis trailed 21-3 midway through the second quarter. It took some truly special plays like Dan Klecko catching a touchdown, Jeff Saturday recovering a fumble in the end zone to score another tuddy, and backup tight end Bryan Fletcher making one of the most critical catches in franchise history for the Colts to secure the comeback win (*which the 18 points is tied for the largest overcome deficit in AFC Title Game history).
The improbable victory was clinched when starting cornerback Marlin Jackson ‘got it,’ heroically picking off Brady in the closing seconds. The Colts went on to beat the vaunted Chicago Bears defense, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI just a few weeks later.
Since then, the Colts have appeared in two other AFC title games, both in 2009, winning 30-17 against the New York Jets at home—en route to appearing in Super Bowl XLIV versus the New Orleans Saints, and in 2014, losing 45-7 against the Patriots on the road.
Hopefully, there’s more of these great AFC title games to come in the Colts foreseeable future.