February 1, 2007

This Year’s Colts Mirror Last Season’s Super Bowl Champs

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I’m pretty sure I had a moment of insanity over winter break. I was sitting on my couch watching one of the heart-stopping plays of the Patriots-Chargers game, when something completely asinine occurred to me. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense — the 2006 Colts are this year’s Steelers … as in the 2005 Steelers.

Wow. What does that even mean? What kind of observation is that anyway? Is it even is an observation at all? Saying that one team’s fate will mirror a second’s is nonsense.

Yes, but just for fun, let’s look at the similarities that first caught my attention.

The 2004 Steelers went 15-1 and lost at home in the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion, who they had thoroughly handled (34-20) in the regular season.

The 2005 Colts went 14-2, and lost at home in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion, who they had beaten up in the regular season (26-7).

Both losing squads have now gone to the Super Bowl the next season, with the Steelers winning it … and if you follow this absurd logic, the Colts will too! It’s incredible and strange how similar the two teams are considering that they play completely different styles of football. A total coincidence, right?

But as I thought about the facts more, this “Steelers Theory” started to seem less crazy by the minute, and as the days passed, the idea became increasingly lucid and real — the 2005 Steelers and 2006 Colts are really sharing the same fate.

The 2005 Steelers came into the postseason as major underdogs. No one gave them a chance, thinking they were battered, couldn’t win three games on the road, sported a record of 11-5 to barely make the playoffs, and didn’t have a balanced team (as in, run, run, run … defense, more defense).

At only 23 years, the team had Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl, but who seemed to lack “big game” experience. Its second-best defensive player was an All-Pro safety by the name of Troy Polamalu, with the best being sack-snatching “Sam” Joey Porter. And it operated with a running back by committee.

The 2006 Colts came into the playoffs as underdogs with a 12-4 record. Most pundits didn’t give them much of a shot at the Super Bowl, since they had key injuries on defense and couldn’t win on the road in the playoffs. Critics called them “an unbalanced team,” with a decent run game and a blossoming vertical game, the NFL’s worst rush defense by a large margin, and their best run-stuffer, Bob Sanders, playing hurt.

Oh and that quarterback — Peyton Manning — he had a nasty habit of folding under intense defensive pressure. The Colts’ second-best starter on defense is a young, All-Pro free safety named Bob Sanders. Their best is All-Pro sack-master Dwight Freeney. The Colts also have a running back by committee.

NFL pundits underestimated both teams due to their regular season problems. The thing is, those problems didn’t actually exist in the playoffs. Anyone who had done a little bit of research could see this — I’m looking at you, ESPN “analysts.”

At 12-4, the 2006 Colts basically underperformed for a third of the season, knowing they had locked up a playoff spot. They perform this well every year, and it therefore was completely irrelevant that they were 12-4 and not anything better. The key injuries they sustained had all been filled (McFarland for Simon, the return of Sanders and now Nick Harper). For the Colts, the road woes were totally misguided. I agree with the idea that the Colts perform better in a dome — your team would too if it was fast — but that doesn’t make them worse than other teams because they suddenly are playing on grass and don’t have the crowd to boost them. Maybe another team would be rattled by those things, but the Colts have all been through this many times before. It seems plausible that the road woes became popular as a reason for people to pick against the Colts.

The 2005 Steelers exploded into the playoffs, winning their final five games. They were finally injury-free, and peaked at just the right time despite their 11-5 record. Playing on the road was irrelevant to them too, as everyone found out.

Did they have an unbalanced offense? Not exactly! The 2005 Steelers were criticized because they had a great run game, yet only a “marginal” passing game. But, as everyone found out, you can’t stop something when you’re blocked and out-planned. And the pass game was actually stellar, thanks to Roethlisberger and an underrated group of receivers.

When it comes to the 2006 Colts, Manning makes the passing game consistently great, and no one has ever been able to stop him with any consistency. Even Bill Belichick — who, to me, is the greatest defensive football coach ever — gives up huge yardage to him. Just for good measure, if you look up the numbers, you’ll find both teams became more offensively balanced in the playoffs the year after their respective losses. Incidentally, the 2006 Colts running game is a speed and power tandem, just like those 2005 Steelers.

And now for the 1000-pound gorilla in the room — what about the 2006 Colts defense? The 2005 Steelers had an awesome defense, and the 2006 Colts don’t.

Except that they do. Remember, this is the same — nearly identical — Colts defense that helped the team go 14-0 in the 2005 regular season, the same defense that allowed only 159 yards per game through the air this season and only 115 yards per game on the ground the season before. They are not bad, they have just been schemed improperly. That has changed throughout the playoffs, to the point we’re at now, where the unit is the No. 1 overall defense and No. 2 in points allowed during the playoffs.

And it was only a mater of time before Peyton won a big game. His struggles and subsequent maturation into a playoff winner have been chronicled thoroughly. What about the 2005 Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger — where does he fit into this similarity? Let me give you an anecdote from the games I watched him play towards the end of the 2005 regular season and in the playoffs. Picture this — third-and-long inside his own 50; he gets the ball in the shotgun. Two rushers come right at him nearly eluding the protection, and he doesn’t throw the football. They reach and inch towards him — he just continues to make his reads and progressions — and just as they get through the line, so close to him that they’re literally waving at his face. He throws the ball to a wide-open player for a first down. Every series was like this. Remind you of anyone? Maybe Peyton Manning’s team?

That’s a lot of similarities. Is the Steelers Theory really that ridiculous? Probably, but you’ve got to admit, the similarities are bizarre.

Josh Perlin is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch will appear every other Thursday this semester.