Colts make statement with 34-24 victory

Cowboys get message

Trailing 17-3, Indianapolis rallies, improves to 5-2

November 01, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- In a dawning era of quick-fix football, the Indianapolis Colts made the quantum leap from also-ran to playoff contender yesterday.

They achieved legitimacy with a searing second-half comeback that riddled the Dallas Cowboys, 34-24, before a raucous RCA Dome sellout crowd of 56,860 and a national TV audience.

Down 14 points in the first half, the Colts outscored the Cowboys 31-7 over the final 32 minutes of the game, riding a wave of big plays from their big playmakers -- quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.

When the Week 8 titillation was over, even Colts coach Jim Mora had to admit something special had unfolded.

"It was a big game for us," Mora said. "You can say they're all big games, and that this isn't bigger than any other baloney.

"We were playing a 4-2 team, playing the Cowboys on national TV. To win this game was a test that we passed. A statement game? I don't know."

Statements were being dropped all over the artificial carpet. Perhaps the biggest was that the Cowboys, probably the team of the 1990s with three Super Bowl wins, couldn't keep up with Manning and the Colts' explosive offense. Not even after Indianapolis' special teams gave Dallas two quick scores and early momentum.

A 76-yard punt return by the incomparable Deion Sanders -- off a punt by rookie Hunter Smith that sailed right down the middle of the field -- and a blocked punt staked Dallas to a 10-0 lead that grew to 17-3 early in the second quarter.

But the youthful Colts, who were 3-13 a year ago, improved to 5-2 in the torrid AFC East because they never lost their composure after the ragged start.

"We felt like we spotted them 10 points on the punt return and the blocked punt," Manning said. "Our confidence was still there offensively. We felt like we had to convert some third downs. We knew we could move the ball and get Edgerrin some holes."

Outside of three fumbles -- none of which the Colts lost -- there was little stopping James, the rookie running back who was taken ahead of the more highly touted Ricky Williams in April's draft.

James gouged the Cowboys for 205 yards, including 113 rushing. He got the call on seven of the Colts' first eight plays, and although he produced only one first down from that sequence, it was a sign of things to come.

His 37-yard run in the second quarter set up a field goal that cut the deficit to 17-6. His 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter sent the Colts ahead for the first time at 21-17. And his improvisational 54-yard catch-and-run on a scramble play by Manning preceded another Mike Vanderjagt field goal that gave Indianapolis a 10-point cushion in the last five minutes.

Even one of James' fumbles turned into a Colts touchdown. On first-and-goal from the 3 in the third quarter, he made an extra push for the goal line. When the Cowboys' Darren Woodson knocked the ball loose, Colts rookie receiver Terrence Wilkins pounced on it for a touchdown.

"I wanted to play well so badly, I was trying to make things happen," said James, whose only flaw is a tendency to put the ball on the ground. "On the goal line, I felt I could stretch across the line."

Manning was splendid directing the second-half assault. Counting the final series of the first half, the Colts scored on six consecutive possessions. Manning, the epitome of consistency, completed 11 of 17 passes in each half to finish 22-for-34. But he threw for 228 yards in the second half to finish with 312.

Manning also wasn't afraid to throw at Sanders, the Cowboys' Pro Bowl cornerback. Wilkins caught a 17-yard pass against Sanders early in the game, and Harrison (six receptions, 85 yards) caught a big one late.

Dallas (4-3) had just gone ahead on Emmitt Smith's second touchdown run of the game, a 4-yarder late in the third quarter. Indianapolis responded with a 75-yard scoring drive to recapture the lead.

The drive was punctuated by a delicious 40-yard touchdown throw to Harrison, who blew past Sanders on a post pattern after a play-fake to James. Sanders froze momentarily on the run threat, and Dallas safety Izell Reese also got caught.

"The safety was flat-footed," Harrison said. "It's my job to run down and catch it."

Even the Colts' defense got into the big-play act. On the wildest play of the day, defensive end Chad Bratzke stripped quarterback Troy Aikman of the ball on a sack inside the Dallas 20, then swatted the loose ball back toward the end zone.

Cowboys tackle Erik Williams unwisely swatted it back out of the end zone. Rather than take a safety, the Cowboys surrendered a touchdown. Bratzke caught the carom in midair, lumbered toward the goal line and fumbled again when he was hit. This time, Colts linebacker Michael Barber recovered at the 1, and on the next play, James scored his touchdown.

The spinoff is that the Colts, a last-place team a year ago, are primed for a playoff run.

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