MIAMI -- Given the various playoff comebacks of the Florida Marlins, a franchise that never felt it was out of any contest, fans in these parts have come to believe that late-game heroics are as much a part of the South Florida landscape as sand and palm trees.
Provide the World Series champs just a sniff of fresh blood, and the Marlins transformed into sharks, circling slowly and waiting to move in for the kill. So on Sunday afternoon, with the Colts oozing blood in the final three minutes of a matchup with the Miami Dolphins and spoiled fans assuming Pro Player Stadium had become magical for all its tenants, defensive end Dwight Freeney knew that his first aid was needed.
Nursing a 23-17 lead, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had just thrown an interception on a third-down hitch-screen intended for wide receiver Reggie Wayne, and Miami took possession at the Indianapolis 15 with just 2:45 remaining. A late touchdown and the Dolphins might have prevailed in a game where they had been dominated.
Enter Mr. Tourniquet.
"Hey, we were hemorrhaging a little bit and someone had to stop the bleeding, man," said Freeney. "Those are the kind of moments you play for. I told our guys on the sideline after the interception, 'OK, this is the opportunity we want. It's our game to win.' And we just went out, you know, and won it."
Freeney's third sack of the contest, and his second strip of Dolphins quarterback Brian Griese, punctuated a superb individual effort by the second-year defensive end. Griese's fumble, forced when Freeney ran him down from behind on a naked bootleg play, was recovered by Colts defensive end Raheem Brock at the Colts' 23.
Three kneel-downs by Manning and the Colts had moved to 7-1, showed they can win in any way possible, and demonstrated they are a more complete and mature team.
A year ago, Sunday's late-game faux pas would have followed the script for another Colts collapse. In recent years, this has been a flawed and one-dimensional bunch. Time was that if the Colts offense didn't outscore an opponent and put up toteboard-type numbers, Indianapolis usually lost.
But the mind-boggling victory at Tampa Bay last month, when the Colts won in overtime after expunging a three-touchdown deficit in the final four minutes of regulation, has proved galvanizing. Indianapolis has won by as few as three points and by as many as 34, played well from ahead and good enough when behind, and they now venture into the season's second half an undeniably confident team.
While the Dolphins arrived at the halfway point facing another crossroads, typical of the team's last several seasons, Indianapolis has moved into the far left lane on the fast track for a playoff berth. Notable is that the Colts, whose only loss came at the hands of the Carolina Panthers in overtime on Oct. 12, are undefeated away from the RCA Dome (4-0). In the past, the road has been hard on the Colts, but coach Tony Dungy's men now seem unaffected by where they play.
And, as they demonstrated again Sunday, undaunted by any circumstance.
"The biggest thing I like about this team," Dungy said, "is that it always plays hard and we are winning a lot of ways. We keep finding ways to get it done. Guys seem to be able to pick each other up. That's a good sign."
Added Manning: "We've grown up a lot and are so much more mature than we were just a year ago. Now, when something bad happens, there's a feeling that we can recover from it. We're covering each other's backs. We've got a lot of guys making plays."
What the Colts didn't have Sunday afternoon were as many players finishing on promising drives. Indianapolis moved the ball well virtually all day, and totaled 356 yards and 23 first downs, rolling to an incredible advantage of more than 15 minutes in time of possession. Manning completed 23 of 37 passes for 266 yards -- passes to eight different receivers -- and tailback Edgerrin James ground out 89 rushing yards.
To counter Miami's quick defense -- which had not surrendered 20 points since the season opener, and had allowed just 11 points on average over the last five games, the Colts spread the field with three- and four-wide receiver formations. The Colts are a team which characteristically aligns with two wideouts, two tight ends and one running back. But TE Dallas Clark missed a second straight game (hamstring); even if he had played, the plan was to spread Miami out and provide Manning a better look at the pass rush.
Overall the Colts used three wide receivers 44 times, and had four wideouts on the field 19 times. Manning was in the shotgun formation for 32 snaps. By so doing, the Colts created some creases for James inside, dictated some of the movement of weak-side linebacker Junior Seau and "nickel" corner Terrell Buckley, and kept Miami from playing as much "press" coverage as it would have liked.
"They moved the ball, but we kept them out of the end zone," said defensive end Jason Taylor. "But at the end of the day, what it comes down to is, well "
What it came down to was the inability of a shaky Miami offensive line to keep Freeney out of their backfield.
The Colts' first-round draft choice in '02 and a pure edge rusher, Freeney posted 13 sacks in a tour de force rookie season. On Sunday he had five tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and three hurries -- and he forced an intentional grounding penalty that would have been a fourth sack. All day long, he had Griese in the crosshairs, and he took Dolphins rookie left offensive tackle Wade Smith to school.
One of Freeney's only botches came on a first-quarter play in which the Dolphins caught him in a zone-blitz situation. Dropping off the line and into coverage, Freeney found himself locked up man-to-man on Miami tight end Randy McMichael. The result was a 46-yard pass completion up the left seam, setting up a Dolphins touchdown.
A third-round pick, Smith has been the starter for the undermanned Dolphins all season, and had played fairly well entering Sunday's game. But he was turned inside out by the explosive Freeney, who now has six sacks in the past three games and seven quarterback kills for the year.
Also, the Miami coaching staff didn't do Smith many favors, rarely providing double-team help on Freeney, who practically frolicked through the Dolphins backfield. With veteran Mark Dixon likely to go on injured reserve this week, courtesy of an ankle injury that has not responded to two surgeries, the Dolphins will somehow have to find a way to camouflage the shortcoming of their offensive line.
As for Freeney, well, he needed no camouflage on Sunday afternoon. He might be the equivalent of a stealth bomber, because his quickness makes him difficult to register on the radar screen, but everyone knows he is coming hard off the edge on every play. Twice on Sunday, including in the game's signature play, he chased down Griese on bootlegs.
"I've got one gear, and that's how I play every snap, man," said Freeney. "But when the game is on the line, like on that last (defensive) series, you've got to dig down for that little bit extra. We were a little big wounded, everybody on the sidelines with their heads down and stuff, but I wasn't going to let us bleed out."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.