INDIANAPOLIS – Most observers and analysts weren't picking the Indianapolis Colts to win on the final day of 1995.
That didn't bother Colts players and coaches.
After all, few people had picked the Colts the rest of the year, either.
This was the beginning of the 1995 post-season, and while the game played in San Diego that day – the final game of the first round of the playoffs – would be remembered as the start of something special, something memorable, that wasn't the storyline entering the weekend for the Colts. After all, the last thing most NFL followers and analysts were thinking of or expecting was a run by a relatively-unknown Colts team deep into the post-season. Shoot, those types weren't even expecting a first-round victory.
Not with the 9-7 Colts heading West.
And not with the opponent the defending AFC Champions.
Yet, a Colts victory was exactly what happened.
The Colts, after making the post-season with a victory in the final game of the regular season, not only beat the San Diego Chargers in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Jack Murphy Stadium, they pretty much dominated the game, winning 35-20 and ending 11 years of playoff anonymity.
“This ought to get some respect for the Horsheshoes,” the Indianapolis Star quoted safety Jason Belser saying as he ran from the field after the game.
It did – started to, anyway – and did so in stunning fashion.
“When it comes to the Colts, those analysts always count us out,” linebacker Jeff Herrod said. “I wonder what they're saying.”
The Colts, despite garnering early-season notice with a pair of 21-point comebacks, entered the playoffs with little post-season respect. They had been to the post-season just once since their 1984 arrival in Indianapolis, and the Wild Card entry into the post-season following the 1995 regular season was only the franchise's second post-season appearance in 18 seasons.
They had made the playoff as the AFC East Champions in the strike season of 1987, but lost to the Cleveland Browns in the first playoff game.
A quick loss was expected by many following the 1995 season, too.
After all, the Chargers – despite struggling at times in the regular season – had won the AFC the season before, losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. San Diego entered the game against Indianapolis as favorites for many reasons, not the least of which was a knee injury to Colts running back Marshall Faulk, widely considered Indianapolis' best player.
Faulk gained 16 yards on the first play against San Diego and played no more.
But remarkable playoff runs are often built on the performances of unlikely heroes, and for the Colts in San Diego on the final day of 1995, the unlikely hero was an unlikely rookie runner.
Fullback Zack Crockett, a little-used rookie fullback from Florida State, set a franchise record with 147 yards rushing against the Chargers, and his 66-yard yard touchdown run also was a record for a franchise that featured prominent running back names such as Lenny Moore, Tom Matte and Lydell Mitchell.
“I'm shocked myself,” Crockett told the Star.
For nearly three quarters, the Chargers did what many national analysts expected, inching ahead in a close game leading 17-14 with 4:20 remaining in the third quarter.
But with 41 seconds remaining in the quarter, Jim Harbaugh – now the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but then in the middle of a season and post-season that earned him a long-standing place in Colts history – passed 42 yards for a touchdown to Sean Dawkins.
The Chargers trimmed the lead to 21-20, but on the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Crockett ran off left tackle for a 66-yard touchdown. He was aided by a block by running back Lamont Warren, and Crockett said later he got some “great downfield blocking and followed it to the Promised Land.”
Harbaugh, who earned his “Captain Comeback” moniker early that season with dramatic rallies over Miami and New York, didn't need a comeback on this day, but his 3-yard touchdown run five minutes following Crockett's touchdown capped a remarkable, unexpected victory.
“We did what we've done all year – we kept fighting,” Harbaugh said.
Afterward, that was the theme in the Colts' locker room – that while few outside the team believed the Colts legitimate Super Bowl contenders, a belief very much to that effect was building quickly among the team.
Ray Buchanan, a veteran cornerback, verbalized the feeling.
“Nobody believed in us, but we believed in each other,” he said.
And while just two weeks before the Colts had been unable to beat San Diego in a key late-season game in Indianapolis, the Colts had learned from the loss – namely, they learned there was little reason for the same result in the post-season.
“So much for the experts who said we weren't good enough to win,” Colts safety David Tate told the Star. “If they watched closely against San Diego two weeks ago, they would have seen that.
“Instead, all they do is read the scoreboard and think of Colts teams in the past.”
Whatever observers were thinking of before the game, one thing the Colts were thinking of afterwards was a trip to Kansas City, where they would play the top-seeded Chiefs the following week. But late on New Years Eve, 1995, that was still mostly a thought for another time, another day.
The thought for that day was that although the experts had picked against them, and although they had been overlooked, they had traveled to the West Coast and surprised everyone in the NFL.
Except maybe themselves.
“I just told our guys that we were one of eight teams left now,” Colts Head Coach Ted Marchibroda said. “We have two more steps to get to the top of the mountain.”