We ended with a bit of dread. Let us begin this with some hope.
2006 Indianapolis Colts
How they were like the Seahawks: The ‘06 Colts were led by a great quarterback in his prime. The Colts had two no. 1 receivers who caught for more than half of Manning’s passing yards. Marvin Harrison had 442 receiving yards through five games. The passing offense was complemented by the committee backfield of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes.
The Colts defense was opportunistic. Exactly like the 2020 Seahawks the defense forced 10 turnovers while the offense allowed only four.
Indy won quite a few close games. Four of their five wins were by a single score including a game won by a single point. Their lone blowout win came against the Texans. Houston would finish 6-10 in Gary Kubiak’s first season. By DVOA, the Colts faced the 29th most difficult schedule through five weeks.
How they were unlike the 2020 Seahawks: DVOA was no fan of this team. They ranked 16th overall despite being 5-0. They were hit pretty hard by opponent adjustment but even without opponent adjustment they would have ranked 12th.
The Colts offense rated a bit worse than Seattle’s at 17.5% DVOA. But it did rate fourth in the NFL. Indy’s offense was much more balanced. I do not think any Peyton Manning offense was anything but pass-first, except for maybe Kubiak’s 2015 Broncos team which animated Manning’s lifeless body Weekend at Bernie’s -like to a Super Bowl win. But pass-first in 2006 meant passing on 57% of plays.
Indy’s defense was much worse than the Seahawks, and very different. The run defense was run over like rarely seen in football history. Through five weeks it had allowed 851 yards rushing, 5.4 yards an attempt, and in aggregate 9.76 expected points added. That last stat may not seem that crazy until you learn that the best rushing team in the NFL, Jacksonville’s awesome combination of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, lost 16 points running the ball. That kind of extreme inefficiency is how we got to the pass-heavy offenses of today.
The pass rush was like and not at all like Seattle this season. It had two star ends: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis . But through five games it only had eight sacks, one fewer than Seattle. Raheem Brock played defensive tackle, and some dude named Booger McFarland was the team’s big, run-stuffing defense tackle. The whole front seven was the small, light and fast paradigm of the Tampa 2 taken to extremes, and it failed miserably. Until it didn’t.
The only notable member of the special teams was Adam Viniateri. He replaced the Colts “Idiot Kicker,” and was fine. About as good as Jason Myers. Terrence Wilkins returned a punt for a touchdown and the Colts finished eighth at returning punts.
How did it turn out: In a Super Bowl victory after Bob Sanders pulled a Terrell Davis.
Before all that the Colts continued in their odd way, proving there is no one way to be great in the NFL. The defense stayed bad. The pass defense improved to 15th but the run defense finished second to last as measured by DVOA. In one of their four losses Jacksonville ran for 375 yards. That stung. Worse, the Colts also lost to the Texans. College great Ron Dayne set a career best with 153 rushing yards. The team finished 12-4, winning the tiebreaker over New England by beating the Patriots in Week 9. That was one of four regular season games Sanders played in.
Most football fans over 20 probably remember this, but when Sanders returned from injury for the playoffs, it transformed the Colts defense. Not only was it better but the run defense suddenly became elite. Larry Johnson, who has a kitten’s whisker short of 2200 total yards and 11 kitten’s whiskers from 1,800 rushing yards, was held to 61 and 32 respectively. Sanders’ ability to fix a run defense from the safety position was totally unexpected and it persisted.
Jamal Lewis was held to 77 total yards and 53 yards rushing. Ravens free agent signee Steve McNair couldn’t pick up any of the slack. He passed for 173 yards and two interceptions. The Colts, the 2006 Colts, won 15-6.
In the AFC Championship Game forgotten Patriots bell cow Corey Dillon broke out for a run of 35 and was held to 13 yards on six other attempts. Hotshot rookie Laurence Maroney rushed eight times for 13 yards. Tom Brady, still widely considered a game manager in 2006, passed for 232 with a touchdown and a pick. Still the game proved close. New England benefited from an Asante Samuel pick-six. They very nearly won, but to quote the article at Wikipedia:
“With the Patriots looking to clinch the game with a first down with under three minutes to play and holding a 34-31 lead, Sanders dove in front of Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown and deflected the pass, forcing the Patriots to punt and giving Peyton Manning the chance to drive for the game-winning touchdown.”
The Colts beat the Bears in the Super Bowl. By EPA, Indy’s offense lost 3.78 points, but their defenses added 23.57. The Bears, incidentally, were the number one overall team as rated by DVOA after Week 5. The Colts added nearly 12 points of value through their rush defense. For the 2006 season, they added 16 points. Which was last in the NFL.
Anyway, I elaborate on all this only because Seattle invested heavily into acquiring a great strong safety, and much was made about the position’s relative lack of value. It’s generally true and what is generally true is also sometimes not at all true.
To steal a bit from the Simpsons: The moral of the story is that 5-0 teams are often not just good but great and great teams win Super Bowls. Only, great regular season teams sometimes crap out and good but flawed regular season teams sometimes put it all together and go on one crazy run. I guess the moral is that run defense matters. Except for the billion teams for which it didn’t matter most recently the 2019 Chiefs. Well, I guess the moral is that if a great quarterback makes the playoffs enough he will inevitably taste glory. Tell that to Dan Marino.
Huh, I guess there is no moral to this story. It was just a bunch of stuff that happened. But what a memorable season this will be however it ends.