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-kicking Colts boot Dolphins

Cota's fumble return for TD aids 37-34 win

MIAMI -- For quarterback Peyton Manning, there was comfort in holding the hand of teammate Jeff Burris.

For coach Jim Mora, there was comfort in rattling the lucky beads of his beloved Sophie Pearl.

But for kicker Mike Vanderjagt, there was no time to seek comfort. There was only the 53 yards that stood between him and the Indianapolis Colts' biggest victory of the year.

He could have thought about the fact that his four misses in eight field-goal attempts in the preseason spurred rumors he was going to be replaced. Or thought about how his subsequent three misses on his first six attempts in the regular season left him feeling ever more expendable.

Instead, he shut his thoughts off.

My mind went blank, he said.

But only for the amount of time it took for the ball to be snapped and kicked in the final seconds of Sunday's 37-34 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Pro Player Stadium.

About halfway through the kick, I knew it was good, Vanderjagt said. And I was off and running to celebrate.

The kick was indeed good, but only with a few feet to spare, giving the Colts a momentous win before a stunned crowd of 74,096.

It might be simplistic to say a torch was passed Sunday from the playoff-hardened Dolphins to the playoff-eager Colts, and from future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino to the 23-year-old Manning.

But then again, it might be absolutely correct.

A lot of football must still be played before the Colts can rightfully claim they have regained the stature they once held in the days when Baltimore was their home and Johnny Unitas was their quarterback.

But Sunday's victory at least gives them control of the division for the crucial days ahead. The win, Indianapolis' eighth in a row, gives the AFC East leaders a 10-2 record and a two-game lead over Miami and the idle Buffalo Bills, both 8-4, with four games to play.

It was a true test of where this team really is, Indianapolis defensive end Mark Thomas said.

What are we made of? We are learning to overcome adversity. We are learning to overcome turnovers. We are showing that we can pin our ears back and play when we have to.

And there were plenty of times Sunday when they had to despite the fact that the Colts soared to a 17-3 first-quarter lead, and were still in front, 24-10, at the half.

Vanderjagt, who was successful on three field goals from beyond the 40-yard line Sunday, opened the scoring with a 44-yarder.

After Miami's Olindo Mare answered with a 31-yarder, Indianapolis running back Edgerrin James, a local boy who has made too good as far as Dolphin fans are concerned, broke through the Miami defense for a 41-yard scoring run.

James started down the right side, eluded would-be tackler Patrick Surtain, then cut back to the middle and turned on the after-burners, leaving the Dolphins in frustration.

Before the day was done, James rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns, his eighth 100-yard plus game of the season.

Miami had hoped it would be their running back, J.J. Johnson, who would be putting up those kinds of numbers.

Instead, Johnson committed a costly first-quarter fumble that allowed Indianapolis to take early control of the game.

After picking up six yards around the left side, Johnson was stripped of the ball by Burris. It wound up in the hands of Colt defensive back Chad Cota, who took off for the end zone 25 yards away unimpeded.

Johnson and several of his teammates had a chance to stop Cota, but they were too busy trying to convince the officials that Johnson had been down before he lost control of the ball.

Wrong.

Indianapolis 17, Miami 3.

For much of the last 17 years, such a score would have meant little as long as there was enough time on the clock and Marino was on the field.

But Marino was on the field at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day for Miami's last game and the result was five Marino interceptions and a 20-0 shutout of the Dolphins by the Dallas Cowboys.

Was that just the result of a five-game absence by Marino because of a nerve injury or the more lasting effects of time on a 38-year-old arm?

Sunday, Marino let it be known that it is a little early to start etching the final numbers on his Hall of Fame plaque. There's still a little life left in that old arm. Every time Manning and the Colts threatened to put Sunday's game away, Marino responded, finishing up with 24 completions in 38 attempts for 313 yards and three touchdowns.

Marino first got his club back in the game with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Oronde Gadsden to cut the margin to 17-10.

After James had scored on a one-yard run before the half, the Miami defense opened the second half with a big play, cornerback Sam Madison corralling a pass that slipped out of the hands of receiver Marvin Harrison and taking it into the end zone 21 yards away.

Then it became a shootout between the kid and the master.

Manning connected with Terrence Wilkins on a five-yard touchdown pass. Marino fired back, finding Tony Martin on a 33-yard scoring play and Stanley Pritchett on a one-yarder.

Tie score, 31-31.

The two teams exchanged field goals, Vanderjagt from 48 yards out, Mare from 32.

Still tied, now with only 36 seconds to play after Mare's kick.

With a second-year man at quarterback and the crowd and pressure on him, would Mora elect to play it safe and hope to win the overtime coin toss?

Not a chance. Not with this team.

Given the green light, Manning found Harrison on a pair of critical passes over the middle for 16 and 18 yards and then handed the ball over to Vanderjagt.

Mora clutched those beads which were given to him by his 5-year-old granddaughter Sophie Pearl, beads that have been on his arm throughout this winning streak.

When it was over, the fans filed quietly out of the stadium as all the lights went out.

All but that flaming torch, which was on its way to Indianapolis.