Following their disappointing finish to last season, an unbelievable loss to the Ravens at Mile High in one of the best playoff games in recent NFL history, the Broncos have entered 2013 as a team on a mission. Sure, they lost LB Von Miller, but they brought in WR Wes Welker. Returning from the incredible 2012 squad are studs like WR’s Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and KR Trindon Holliday has established himself as the new specialist sensation, scoring touchdowns that are sure to garner multiple YouTube viewings.
The catalyst behind all of this, though, is QB Peyton Manning. Manning was already going down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but this season could end up being his best season yet. Through four games, Manning has completed 75 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,470 yards, 16 touchdowns, and has yet to record an interception en route to a passer rating of 138.0. Needless to say, all of stats are tops in the NFL. In the process, the Broncos have put up a 4-0 record, posting score that would make Arena Football League teams blush.
So naturally, these Cowboys, already 2-2 with heartbreaking losses to Denver’s AFC West brethren Kansas City and San Diego, don’t stand a chance against Peyton and his army, right?
All I’m going to say is don’t put that win in Denver’s win column just yet.
Don’t get me wrong, the Cowboys probably deserve to be double digit underdogs, despite the game being held at the friendly confines of AT&T, where they’re 2-0 this season. If you read the fine print though, you’ll find that those wins are against the Giants and Rams, which is like saying the Baylor Bears own wins over Buffalo and Wofford. The Dallas defense is also coming off a dreadful performance on Sunday in San Diego, giving up 506 yards of offense, 401 of which came from Philip Rivers’s passing. If Philip Rivers can tear up this defense, just imagine what Peyton can do.
So why should Cowboys fans have any reason to believe they can pull off an improbable upset? Well, to quote the immortal Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again!” In other words, Manning has squared off against a vulnerable Dallas team before…and the last couple of times it’s happened, things didn’t work out for him.
Though it seems like a long time ago, Manning was once the face of the Indianapolis Colts franchise. His most memorable year in Indy had to be 2006, when he guided the Colts to Super Bowl XLI, currently the only time he has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. The road to that Super Bowl went through Dallas, during Week 11 of the ’06 regular season. The Colts were undefeated at the time, boasting a 9-0 record upon their descent to Irving, Texas. Nobody gave the Cowboys, who entered the game with a 5-4 mark, much of a chance. Indianapolis was looking like a Super Bowl favorite and they were coming off a huge 27-20 win over the New England Patriots two weeks earlier. The Cowboys, on the other hand, had a winning record, but were labeled no more than mediocre by several experts. They were coming off a 27-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals, but two weeks prior, before Indy handled New England in the night game, the Boys dropped a rough 22-19 decision to a Washington Redskins team that would go on to finish 5-11. Finally, while the Colts were working with the stability and promise of Manning, the Cowboys had a young quarterback named Tony Romo making his first start at Texas Stadium.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Colts predictably jumped out a 2nd quarter lead when Manning found Reggie Wayne for a 23 yard score just before halftime. Other than that, both defenses held strong in the first half, and the Colts went into the locker room up 7-0. Romo had been harassed all day by the Indy defense, losing the ball on a Dwight Freeney sack on his first drive, then throwing an interception to Nick Harper later in the half. To make matters worse, he was unable to get the Boys inside the Indianapolis red zone. Dallas did have their chances to get on the board, but former Colts K Mike Vanderjagt, whom Manning once referred to as “our idiot kicker” missed two field goals, from 43 and 46 yards out, wide right. The fans were so upset that they booed Vanderjagt when a commercial starring the kicker appeared on the video boards. It would turn out to be Vanderjagt’s second to last game in a Cowboys uniform, as he was booted for Martin Gramatica after the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game.
The seeds for an upset were planted in the opening minute of the 3rd quarter when LB Kevin Burnett tipped and caught a Manning pass, taking it 39 yards for the tying score. The Colts ended the 3rd quarter with a 14-7 lead, thanks to a Manning-to-Dallas Clark touchdown, but the 4th quarter belonged to the Cowboys. Romo was at his best, masterfully guiding the Cowboys a 68 yard drive that tied the game, followed by an 80 yard drive to win it. RB Marion Barber III was responsible for the scores each time taking it in from 5 yards the first time and 1 yard the second time. Manning then drove to the Dallas 8, but his final two passes fell incomplete, giving Dallas the ball back. Romo sealed the game by hitting WR Terry Glenn on a slant, picking up just enough on 3rd and 7. A few kneels ended the game, a 21-14 Dallas win. Romo finished 19-23 (10-11 in the 2nd half) with 226 yards, while Manning ended up 20-39 with 254 yards with 2 TD’s but 2 key interceptions as well. The other pick, attributed to S Pat Watkins, came at the Dallas 4 in the 2nd quarter.
Four years later, the Cowboys and Colts were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. While the Colts, as usual, were contenders, 2010 is basically a year Cowboys fans do not speak of. After thoughts of “hosting” the Super Bowl danced through our heads in the offseason, the Cowboys drew blanks when the games started to count. It took a 1-7 start to convince Jerry Jones that the Wade Phillips era…or error…was over and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was given the reigns. While Garrett had made noticeable improvements to the team, which led to back-to-back wins over the Giants and Lions, again, nobody gave the Boys much hope. The Colts did enter with a pedestrian 6-5 mark brought about by two losses coming into the Dallas game, but that didn’t stop oddsmakers from giving the Colts a 5.5 point advantage. The fact the game was held at Lucas Oil Stadium didn’t help matters, nor did the fact the Cowboys were coming a painful Thanksgiving loss to New Orleans, which more or less ended hope for a miraculous playoff run.
Like they did against Peyton’s brother Eli three weeks before, the underdog Cowboys got off to a hot start on the road. QB Jon Kitna, filling in for an injured Romo, led the Boys on a 9 play, 80 yard drive to open the game, culminating on a 20 yard touchdown run from RB Tashard Choice. A Manning interception to CB Alan Ball set up K David Buehler’s 30 yard field goal, giving Dallas a 10-0 advantage to end the first quarter. To the shock of many, Manning’s second drive ended in his second interception. This one was taken back 40 yards for a score by CB Orlando Scandrick, bringing a massive panic to Colts fans everywhere in addition to a 17-0 deficit.
Manning eventually composed himself and connected with his favorite targets, WR’s Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne to shrink the Dallas lead to 17-14. Manning found Garcon on a 13 yard strike before halftime, and opened the 2nd half on a speedy 4 play, 80 yard drive that took just 1:07 off the clock and ended with a 34 yard hook up with Wayne. The Indianapolis defense toughened up to, only allowing another Buehler field goal after the 3rd quarter mid-point. On the ensuing Colts drive, Manning threw another touchdown pass…to the wrong team. Rookie LB Sean Lee, a 2nd round pick out of Penn State, took it 31 yard for the score. The pick six capped the scoring for the 3rd quarter, with Dallas somewhat comfortably ahead 27-14.
Manning took charge at that point. Following the costly miscue, Manning’s ensuing possession was a 10 play, 80-yard drive that concluded with a 1 yard run by rookie RB Javarris James to shrink the gap to 27-21. The Colts used the momentum to force the Dallas offense into a three and out on their possession, but the worst was yet to come. The would-be Mat McBriar punt was blocked by Colts reserve WR Taj Smith, who recovered his blocked ball in the end zone, giving the Colts their first lead of the day. Undeterred, Kitna, taking the ball with 12:56 left and a one point deficit, engineered a spectacular 19 play, 78 yard drive that took 10:18 of time away from the Colts. The drive culminated in Kitna’s only touchdown throw of the day, a 2 yard strike to TE Jason Witten. Kitna’s two pointer to WR Roy Williams made it 35-28 Dallas with 2:38 to play. However, even though Kitna killed a lot of time, he left just enough for Manning, who took it 81 yards in 2:09. James’s one yard run retied the score. Dallas had a massive scare on the subsequent kickoff, but Lonyae Miller recovered Bryan McCann’s fumble. Kitna then kneeled on the ball, sending it to overtime.
Indianapolis won the toss, and, since they weren’t coached by Marty Mornhinweg, elected to receive. While many expected Manning to pull off one of his signature game winning drives, the Cowboys defense instead forced a punt. After a Dallas three and out, the Colts took over on their own 27. On 3rd and 4, Lee, in what many consider his breakout game, intercepted a pass intended for TE Jacob Tamme (Manning’s currently injured teammate in Denver), giving the Cowboys the ball back. After a few plays getting closer, Buehler launched a 38 yard field goal that sailed through the uprights. Manning would finish the game 36-48, for 365 yards, 2 TD’s and 4 costly INT’s, doubling his total from the 2006 meeting. Lee would win Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors and has been a vital piece of the Cowboys defense ever since.
So while things may not look very bright for the Cowboys, or even if this Broncos team is looking better than any team Manning had in Indianapolis, don’t chalk up the L just yet. The Cowboys were equally vulnerable in their past two meetings with Manning, but as the classic saying goes, that’s why they play the games. I’m not predicting a win by any means, but what’s that other classic saying? History tends to repeat itself.