INDIANAPOLIS -- It has been three years, when he replaced the injured Edgerrin James in the lineup for much of the 2001 season, since Indianapolis tailback Dominic Rhodes started a regular-season game.
That drought didn't end Sunday, as Rhodes again filled his usual spear-carrier role for the explosive Colts offense, getting 10-12 snaps from scrimmage and returning kickoffs. But what Rhodes did do was to jump-start the Colts when they were ebbing badly, as his 88-yard kickoff return helped to rally Indianapolis from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter, a score that set the stage for Peyton Manning's last-minute heroics.
"Without that (kickoff return), honestly, we're probably dead and done for," said Colts safety Gerome Sapp, who got one last block toward the end of Rhodes' resuscitative rumble up the right sideline. "We're down, what, a couple touchdowns at that point? It didn't look very good but that put us right back into the game. (Rhodes) was kind of our unsung hero today."
It wasn't all that long ago that Rhodes was a big-time contributor in the Colts offense.
In 2001, when James blew out his knee in the sixth game of the season, Rhodes became the starter for 10 contests. He became the first undrafted college free agent to rush for 1,000 yards in his rookie season, as the former Midwestern State (Texas) University star ran through defenses for 1,104 yards. But then, ironically, in 2002, it was Rhodes who sustained a severe knee injury, sidelining him the entire season.
Since then, the squat tailback with the afterburners has been a bit of an afterthought, logging just 78 carries over the past two seasons. In the Colts locker room following Sunday's overtime victory, however, Rhodes' contribution was uppermost in the minds of his teammates.
As he stood at his locker stall, accepting congratulations for a turning point that provided a fading team with a pulse, Rhodes smiled and acknowledged how good it felt to make a game-altering play again.
"This one," allowed Rhodes, "has been a long time coming."
The return came on the first play after San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson had burst off right tackle and rambled 16 yards for a touchdown that lifted the Chargers into a 31-16 lead just five seconds into the fourth quarter. Rhodes took the kickoff and started left, then cut back sharply to the right at the hash mark as he hit the 20-yard line, broke tackle attempts by Jesse Chatman and kicker Nate Kaeding at about midfield, and raced up the sideline for the score.
It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown by Indianapolis this season, and the first for Rhodes since his rookie campaign. In the second quarter, Rhodes set up a field goal with a 60-yard return. For the day, Rhodes had 236 yards on six runbacks and the fourth-year veteran is now averaging 24.4 yards on 42 returns for the season.
"You hate to point to any one play as making the difference in a game," said San Diego linebacker Steve Foley, "but that was a big one. We had them down, ready to take them out, and that put them back in the game. You could see their energy, in every phase of the game, pick up after that."
Early in the season, Rhodes was used considerably in short-yardage situations, and he still gets some snaps in those scenarios. On Sunday, he ran twice for 19 yards, ripping off gains of eight and 11 yards on consecutive first-quarter plays. But with James on pace for 355 carries and 1,653 yards, Rhodes understands that he now has to find ways to make every "touch" count.
Having assumed the kickoff return chores when Brad Pyatt was injured two months ago, Rhodes seems to have found a niche, and rediscovered the confidence of the coaches.
"It was huge," coach Tony Dungy said of Rhodes' return. "I thought the best thing we did, consistently well all day, was return kickoffs and cover kickoffs. And the touchdown came when we needed a spark pretty badly."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.