MIAMI (Feb. 4, 2007) -- The Indianapolis Colts defense completed a remarkable four-game run through playoffs with a dominating performance against the Chicago Bears, punctuated by cornerback Kelvin Hayden's 56-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Yes, this is the same Colts defense that finished the regular season last in the league against the run and looked so horrid on so many occasions. Remember the 375 yards rushing it surrendered to Jacksonville? Remember the way it was taken apart by the Houston Texans?
Distant memories now.
"You get to the point when you hear so many negative things said that you want to put them all to rest," said defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. "We went out there tonight and played with a sense of urgency. We went after the football and we showed that the Colts have a quality defense."
Then came a big smile. "And right now," Meeks said, "we have a championship defense."
With that tough rushing defense and some big plays by the secondary, the Colts kept the Bears in check just as they did the Chiefs, Ravens and Patriots earlier in the playoffs. Think back. When is the last time a defense turned itself around just for the playoffs? What the Colts defense did in the playoffs and then the Super Bowl will go down as one of the more incredible postseason stories.
"We knew the Bears couldn't drive down the field on us," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. "We knew they would have to put together some big plays and we just wouldn't let that happen."
Bears quarterback Rex Grossman proved no match for that defense, throwing two fourth quarterback interceptions that sealed the victory for the Colts. First, it was Hayden going 56 yards to make it 29-17, then it was team leader Bob Sanders ending all doubts with another interception and a 38-yard return.
That Sanders made a big play was no surprise. He's been doing that all during the playoffs. But Hayden? This is a fairy tale story of a second-year player who grew up in Chicago and went to Illinois, playing for Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner no less. How often do you get a chance to beat your hometown team on the biggest of stages? Wake up, Kelvin, it really happened.
And the interception? "We knew Grossman could throw some bad passes," Hayden said. "As soon as the ball left his hands, I said to myself, 'this is my ball, this is my ball.' As soon as I caught it, I was thinking end zone. I don't know how I got there, but I kept running and hoping and, all of a sudden, I was there. What a great feeling, it's something you always think about as a kid."
Hayden was only in the game at the time because starter Nick Harper went down with an ankle injury in the first half. Not only did Hayden make an excellent catch, but he remarkably tip-toed down the sideline without stepping out of bounds. The Bears challenged the play because they couldn't believe he had not stepped out. Replays clearly showed that it was a touchdown all the way.
"I don't know how I stayed in bounds," Hayden said.
The 17 points surrendered by the Colts is misleading because the first touchdown was a 92-yard kickoff return by Devin Hester that opened the game in dramatic fashion. But look at the statistics. The Colts gave up only 11 first downs and a total of just 265 yards. The Bears were 3 of 10 in third-down situations and, at one point, went almost 25 minutes without gaining a first down.
The Colts added three fumble recoveries to those two interceptions and, even though Thomas Jones rushed for 112 yards, almost half of that (52 yards) came on one carry.
"Everybody said we couldn't do it," said linebacker Cato June. "Well, we showed them, didn't we? We wanted to put the Bears in passing situations and that's exactly what we did. I'm not sure this was our best defensive game of the year, but when you step up and, as a defense, hold a team to 10 points, you are doing a lot of things very well."
Added defensive end Robert Mathis: "First we had to stop the two-headed monster -- running backs Jones and Cedric Benson. Once we did that, it became a lot easier. We still gave up some yards, but we didn't give up any big plays. That's been the story of our defense through the playoffs. We just kept stepping up."
Peyton Manning won the MVP and justifiably so, but that Colts defense was clearly the story of these playoffs. Dwight Freeney. Cato June. Bob Sanders. Gary Brackett. So many players contributed. Who ever saw this coming?
"Now," said June, "I guess everybody will start believing."