Saturday’s wild-card playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and the Indianapolis Colts came down to an unsuccessful Hail Mary. For seasoned Colts fans, the play brought flashbacks to another playoff disappointment from a quarter-century ago.
The 1995 Colts were lucky and good
Before he disappointed everybody as head coach at the University of Michigan, Jim Harbaugh was the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, a team that hadn’t done much of anything since they left Baltimore after the 1983 season. In their 11 seasons in the Hoosier State, the Colts had made only one playoff appearance.
At first, the 1995 season looked like it might be business as usual in Indianapolis, as the Colts lost their first game to the lowly Bengals, 24-21. The following week, as they trailed the Jets 24-3 in the third quarter, head coach Ted Marchibroda pulled underperforming starting quarterback Craig Erickson in favor of Harbaugh.
Harbaugh rewarded that decision by leading the offense to three straight touchdowns and forcing overtime, where Indianapolis kicked a game-winning field goal. Three weeks later, the Colts once again rallied from 21 points down to win an overtime game against a division rival — this one against the Dolphins on the road. Jim Harbaugh would earn the nickname “Captain Comeback.”
Indianapolis snuck into the playoffs with nine wins, including an 18-17 upset over the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers. As the fifth seed, the Colts continued to shock the football world, eliminating the defending AFC champion San Diego Chargers in the wild-card round. The following week, they knocked out the AFC’s top seed, the Kansas City Chiefs, 10-7, aided by three missed field goals from Chiefs kicker Lin Elliott.
This set up an AFC Championship matchup with the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers.
A back-and-forth AFC Championship
Pittsburgh came into the game still sore from losing the previous year’s AFC Championship game to San Diego. This was a second-chance game for Bill Cowher’s Steelers.
No team reached the end zone until the very end of the first half. With 13 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell found Kordell Stewart to give Pittsburgh a 10-6 lead.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Steelers led 13-9 when the Colts finally threatened to reach the end zone. With 8:46 remaining, Harbaugh hit Floyd Turner for a 46-yard touchdown, giving Indianapolis a 16-13 lead. For a moment, it seemed that a 9-7 Indianapolis Colts team would reach the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh answered immediately, driving 67 yards in less than a minute and a half. Bam Morris gave the Steelers a 20-16 lead with a one-yard touchdown run. This left the Colts with only 1:34 to snatch victory.
The Hail Mary that almost happened
The game came down to one final play from the Steelers’ 29-yard line with five seconds left. Harbaugh threw a high, spiraling pass into the end zone that landed in a sea of Colts and Steelers hands.
The Colts’ Aaron Bailey reached for the ball. For one agonizing second, the ball rested on Bailey’s chest. In the confusion, Colts’ play-by-play announcer Bob Lamey initially declared that the pass had been caught. It hadn’t. The ball rolled off of Bailey’s chest and hit the turf. Bailey raised his arms in celebration hoping to influence the referees but to no avail. The pass was ruled incomplete.
The Colts and Steelers met again the following season in the wild-card game. The rematch had nowhere near the amount of drama as the previous season, as the Steelers won 42-14.
Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.