For all their hall of fame players and all their championships, the Colts main contribution to the annuals of professional football has been their participation in the two most important games in NFL history.
The 1958 NFL Championship Game, played December 28th at Yankee Stadium, is known quite modestly as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” In a watershed moment for the NFL, the Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in the league’s first overtime game.
Including administrators and coaches, there were 17 hall of famers involved in this historic contest. Colts receiver Raymond Berry’s 12 catches is still a record for receptions in a championship game.
Because 45 million people watched the game on television it gave the NFL a huge boost in popularity. It also forecasted the important role TV would play in the league’s success.
The ’58 Championship Game had such immense impact on the public that the following year Lamar Hunt capitalized on the sport’s new found fame to form the American Football League.
The AFL would eventually merge with the NFL and in doing so gave rise to the Super Bowl. And it was Super Bowl III, played in 1969, that would once again put the Colts into the NFL history books, but this time they were on losing side.
Heavily favored against the AFL’s New York Jets, the Colts lost the rather pedestrian game, 16-7. The loss proved the AFL could compete with the NFL and because of Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s famous prediction, the Super Bowl was propelled into a de facto American holiday.
The Colts would get their first Super Bowl victory two years later by defeating the Dallas Cowboys. The game is known as the “Blunder Bowl” because both teams combined to commit 11 turnovers.
The Colts rallied from a halftime deficit and won the game thanks to rookie kicker Jim O'Brien’s 32-yard field goal with five seconds left on the clock. The quarterback for Colts that day, and during the 1958 Championship Game as well, was none other than future hall of famer Johnny Unitas.
The legendary quarterback joined the Colts in 1956. He would go on to win three MVP awards, be selected to ten Pro Bowls and make six All-Pro first-teams. His record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games has yet to be broken and probably never will. When he retired in 1973 he owned just about every significant passing record in the NFL.
When Unitas joined the club in 1956, the franchise was just three years old and still in Baltimore.
The Colts have tenuous roots that go back as far as 1930 and the Dayton Triangles. The franchise that began play in Baltimore in 1953 was actually the same that played in Dallas, for the two previous years, called the Texans.
When the Texans moved from Dallas to Baltimore they adopted the name “Colts” from an old All-American Football Conference team that had dissolved in 1951.
The Colts would remain in Baltimore through the 1983 season. Under the cover of darkness, and with a fleet of moving trucks, the franchise literally sneaked out of Baltimore for their new home in Indianapolis.
The franchise left town so furtively because they feared that the state of Maryland would seize the team via imminent domain.
Relocation had gradually been building for years. The franchise didn’t want to leave Baltimore but the Colts desperately needed a new stadium. The city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland never obliged the Colts with the necessary funding for a new facility. So with no other options, the franchise moved to Indianapolis.
The city of Indianapolis had built the Hoosier Dome (eventually renamed the RCA Dome) for the purpose of luring an NFL franchise. The Colts would call the dome home until 2007.
In 2008, the Colts moved into a brand new, state-of-the art facility called Lucas Oil Stadium. In 2013, the stadium is scheduled to host Super Bowl XLVI.
After years of losing, the Colts finished the 1995 season just one Hail Mary pass away from the Super Bowl. The team, known as the Cardiac Colts, was led by quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
After finishing 9-7, and making the playoffs, the Colts defeated the San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs to advance to the AFC championship game. The Colts had a chance to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers but Aaron Bailey dropped a last second Hail Mary pass in the endzone.
The 1990’s would end with the Colts acquiring three key personnel that would eventually lead the team to success in the 21st century.
First, Jim Irsay became owner of the team after his father died and a legal battle with his stepmother. Irsay then hired Bill Polian as general manager in December of 1997.
In the 1998 NFL Draft, Polian passed on drafting quarterback Ryan Lead and instead selected Peyton Manning with the first overall pick. It turned out to be one of the greatest football decisions of all-time.
The former Tennessee Volunteer quickly developed into the prototype franchise quarterback thanks to his amazing work ethic and his natural talent.
Manning would eventually win three MVP awards, be selected to nine Pro Bowls and four times make first-team All-Pro. Statistically he’s one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks to ever lace them up and the Colts’ all-time leader in passing touchdowns and passing yards.
With Manning at the helm, the Colts would go on to win 12 or more games in seven consecutive seasons—the only NFL team to achieve such a feat. The Colts are also the first team to defeat all other 31 teams in the NFL.
While the Colts of this era dominated the regular season they did have trouble in the postseason, especially with conference rivals the New England Patriots. The Pats ousted the Colts from the playoffs in 2003 and 2004.
However, in the 2006 AFC Championship game the Colts finally defeated the Patriots when it counted. Manning and company rallied from a 21-3 deficit to defeat the Pats 38–34. It was the largest comeback ever in a NFL conference championship game.
The Colts would then defeat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, 29-17, with Manning being named Super Bowl MVP. Besides capturing the team’s second Super Bowl, the victory also made Tony Dungy the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.
While Dungy’s Super Bowl victory is one of the most important milestones in franchise history, the Colts have achieved a few other “firsts.” The franchise was the first to have a marching band and the first to have cheerleaders.
With a top-notch owner like Jim Irsay, and the team playing in the beautiful Lucas Oil Stadium, the Indianapolis Colts are poised to be a dominating franchise in the AFC South for years to come.