Throwback Thursday: A look at the Colts’ historic 2003 MNF comeback

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 6: Tight end Dallas Clark #44 of the Indianapolis Colts finds a hole to run through against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 6, 2003 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Colts defeated the Buccaneers 38-35 in overtime. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 6: Tight end Dallas Clark #44 of the Indianapolis Colts finds a hole to run through against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 6, 2003 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Colts defeated the Buccaneers 38-35 in overtime. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images) /

A new series is coming to Horseshoe Heroes! Every Thursday, we will be taking a look back at some of the Colts’ greatest moments in franchise history, from the beginning of the Baltimore Colts in 1953 to the present.

(Note: The series isn’t going to start how many expected it to with the team’s Super Bowl XLI victory in 2006. Although it’s the best moment that this franchise has produced, this series will be taking a more random approach rather than a chronological one.)

With the courtesies out of the way, what follows is the game that put Peyton Manning on legend status.

All game and player statistics provided by

October 7th, 2003 – Week 5 – Indianapolis Colts (4-0) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)

The undefeated Indianapolis Colts roll into Tampa Bay to face the defending Super Bowl Champions. Having just posted 55 points on six Peyton Manning touchdowns, it seemed the team would have an edge given that the Buccaneers haven’t looked exactly like their championship team from 7 months prior. The Bucs still look like a team ready to dominate on defense, so in short, the league’s best offense facing the best defense is surely a game that won’t disappoint.

The Colts got off to a slow start, which is almost too generous considering what actually happened in the first half. After trading punts in the first five minutes, Keenan McCardell broke the silence with a 74-yard touchdown catch from QB Brad Johnson. Maybe it was just a freak play or a busted coverage.

Regardless, the Colts followed up their 3-and-out on their first drive with a better, but still disappointing, 5-play drive that ended in another Hunter Smith punt. The league’s best offense was in need of some jumper cables to start their engine. Peyton Manning’s 11 total passing yards through two drives only cemented that fact.

After two completions from Brad Johnson, the Bucs seemed poised to add to their lead before the Colts received a gift of an interception courtesy of Mike Doss. However, catastrophe struck as Doss fumbled right into the hands of Keenan McCardell, who then returned that for a 57-yard touchdown. A bad omen for things to come.

The first quarter came to an end the same way it began: a Colts punt after a 10-yard drive, followed by a Brad Johnson touchdown pass (this time to Reggie Barlow). Three more punts followed, a Bucs punt sandwiched in between two by the Colts, and a Bucs missed field goal from 60 yards concluded the half at 21-0.

68 passing yards on 15 attempts by Manning,  5 punts, and not one play in Buccaneer territory is nothing but a bad sign for the high-powered Colts team. To add insult to injury, Johnson’s 189 passing yards and 2 touchdowns has only led to one thing:

Advantage, Bucs.

Halftime Score: Bucs – 21, Colts – 0

Looking at the first play of the second half, it wouldn’t be a bold statement to say that HC Tony Dungy‘s halftime speech didn’t get the Colts offense rolling. RB James Mungro fumbled the ball on the first play of the second half, luckily falling on it and saving yet another ugly drive.

The offense sputtered to life long enough to get Marvin Harrison into the endzone on a 37-yard catch after RB Ricky Williams‘ 19-yard run marked the first time the Colts ran a play in Buccaneer territory, only taking 35 minutes of game time.

An efficient 5-play, 85-yard march looked to at least wake the offense up from their slumber. The teams traded 3-and-outs and the Bucs responded with an 85-yard touchdown drive of their own, capped off by yet another Keenan McCardell TD catch and led by Michael Pittman‘s 32 rushing yards and 20 receiving yards.

Time was running out on the Colts.

Bucs – 28, Colts – 7

Manning went 4-of-4 passing for 65 yards on the first drive of the 4th quarter and led the offense down the field to score again, this time a Ricky Williams 1-yard touchdown. Now a 28-14 game, they were right back in the game. The Colts’ offense finally started cruising; meanwhile, the Bucs defense was starting to show the chinks in their armor.

A 7-play Bucs drive (with 7 rushes) killed 4 minutes off the clock but resulted in a punt. The Colts were in business, until the disastrous next three plays. Play #1: An 8-yard penalty on Indianapolis backed the offense up to their own 7-yard line.

Play #2: Manning’s only sack taken during the entire game, further backing the offense up to the 3-yard line. Play #3: After an 8-yard completion, Manning threw his only interception of the game over the middle, returned 29 yards for a touchdown by CB Ronde Barber.


Bucs – 35, Colts – 14. 4:54 remaining in the 4th quarter.

The Comeback

The saving grace of the night could possibly have come in the hands of a player not named Peyton Manning. Special-teamer Brad Pyatt took the kickoff 90 yards to the Bucs 12-yard line. A minute later and the Colts cut the lead to 35-21 after a 3-yard rush by Mungro. With 3:43 remaining and 14 points to make up, the Colts need a stroke of luck and Kicker Mike Vanderjagt was the man to do it. He dribbled a perfect onside kick to the right sideline, finally falling into Colts special teamer Idrees Bashir.

The legend of Peyton Manning was cemented from this moment.

3:37 to go. The Colts began their drive at their own 42 and immediately flipped the field into Bucs territory after a 15-yard catch by Troy Walters. The hurry-up offense was in full effect as the Colts marched another 11 yards in 10 seconds, courtesy of Marvin Harrison.

Another 9-yard completion to Ricky Williams (after a 5-yard false start on the offense) put the Colts on the doorstep of yet another touchdown. Marvin Harrison proved he was a magnet to Manning’s passes, hauling in a 28-yard touchdown catch with just over 2 minutes to go. The Bucs defense was too tired to keep up with the Colts’ quick tempo. The chinks in the armor were going and the game was breaking open.

Bucs – 35, Colts – 28. 2:38 remaining in the 4th quarter.

Vanderjagt’s success on the previous onside kick only cemented what the Colts were going to do next. This time, however, the team wasn’t successful and Bucs RB Aaron Stecker fell on the ball. For all intents and purposes, this seemed to be the play that saved the Bucs’ collapse. The Colts called their final timeout and forced a punt with 1:41 remaining. Another incredible Manning to Harrison connection of 52 yards put the Colts inside the Bucs’ 10-yard line. Ricky Williams punched in a 1-yard touchdown with 38 seconds remaining.

Tie game. Overtime. 

The Colts’ defense hadn’t had a full drive of snaps since the last Bucs drive of the 4th quarter. Regardless, the unit stepped up and forced a fourth down. After an incompletion on 3rd down, a special teams penalty on the Colts, and another two forced incompletions, the offense finally took the field with 10:40 remaining in the game. Manning and the offense went on to led a bruising 15-play, 76-yard drive that took nearly 7 minutes off of the clock. Vanderjagt sealed the deal with a 27-yard chip shot field goal.

Bruising drive. Vanderjagt. Ball game.

Colts – 38, Bucanneers – 35. Final.

This game was arguably the best in franchise history. Although not as important as the Super Bowl victory a few years later, this historic comeback by Manning cemented his status as a legend in the NFL and showed the world what was in store in Indianapolis.

Peyton Manning was an MVP of the NFL with elite talents to lead a team to victory in even the worst situations. Marvin Harrison was one of the best receivers in the league. From this game forward, Harrison and Manning would become of the most feared offensive duos in football history.

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Without this game, it’s possible that we could all be having a very different conversation regarding the Colts’ success in the Manning era. However, it still stands today as an all-time performance from a legendary quarterback.