Indianapolis 38, New England 34
INDIANAPOLIS -- A comeback, a drive, a legacy. And, yes -- finally -- Peyton Manning gets his Super Bowl trip. So does Tony Dungy.
Football's most prolific quarterback put on a show for the ages Sunday, rallying the Indianapolis Colts from 18 points down and driving them 80 yards for the winning score in a wildly entertaining 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots.
In his nine years in the league, Manning has never played in a game like this AFC championship contest. He threw for 349 yards and one touchdown and brought his team back from a 21-3 deficit, the biggest comeback in conference title-game history.
Joseph Addai capped Manning's late drive with the winning score, a 3-yard run with 1 minute left to help the Colts (15-4) complete the rally and send Dungy to his first Super Bowl -- and a very special one.
The Colts coach will face the Chicago Bears and his good friend Lovie Smith in Miami in two weeks. Together they are the first black coaches to make the Super Bowl in its 41 years.
"It means a lot," Dungy said. "I'm very proud to be representing African-Americans. I'm very proud of Lovie."
Manning, meantime, wouldn't concede that a monster weight was lifted off his shoulders.
"I don't get into monkeys and vindication," he said. "I don't play that card. I know how hard I worked this season, I know how hard I worked this week. It's always nice when you can take the hard work, put it to use and come away with a win."
But after Indy's last touchdown, Manning was on the sideline, his head down -- he couldn't bear to watch. New England's Tom Brady -- he of the three Super Bowl rings -- threw an interception to Marlin Jackson and the RCA Dome crowd went wild. One kneel down later and Manning ripped off his helmet to celebrate.
"I said a little prayer on that last drive," Manning said. "I don't know if you're supposed to pray for stuff like that, but I said a little prayer."
Not only was it a win for Manning, the All-Pro, All-Everything son of Archie, it was a riveting, back-and-forth showcase of two of the NFL's best teams, best quarterbacks, and yet another example of why football is America's favorite sport.
"It could still be, `Can he win a Super Bowl?' and then if he does, everyone will shut up," Dungy said. "But Peyton's a great player, and anyone who doesn't know that doesn't know much about football."
It was anything but a by-the-book game, and that started becoming obvious when New England left guard Logan Mankins opened the scoring by pouncing on a fumbled handoff between Brady and Laurence Maroney that squirted into the Indy end zone midway through the first quarter.
It got worse from there for Manning, who telegraphed a throw to the sideline that Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel snatched and took 39 yards into the end zone for a 21-3 lead.
Then, the game plan changed because it had to, and the game morphed from another Manning meltdown into something much more.
He led the Colts on an 80-yard drive late in the first half for a field goal to make it 21-6. In the third quarter, he was at his cruel best, dissecting an exhausted Patriots defense for a pair of long drives and scores.
The first came on a 1-yard quarterback sneak. The second was capped by a 1-yard pass to Dan Klecko, a defensive tackle who came in as a supposed decoy at the goal line. A circus catch by Marvin Harrison for the 2-point conversion tied the game at 21.
The rest of the game was rollicking, back-and-forth, and Manning never let up.
The Patriots answered with an 80-yard kickoff return by Ellis Hobbs, which set up a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Jabar Gaffney. Officials awarded the score to Gaffney after ruling he was forced out of the back of the end zone by an Indy defender.
Manning came right back but his handoff to Dominic Rhodes misfired. The ball scooted forward and center Jeff Saturday got this touchdown to tie the score at 28.
After that drive, Manning could be seen on the sideline, nursing a sore thumb. But he wasn't coming out.
The teams traded field goals, and Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski put New England ahead 34-31 on a 43-yarder with 3:49 left.
After a touchback, it was time for Manning's drive: 11 yards to Reggie Wayne, 32 yards to Bryan Fletcher, a scary completion to Wayne, who nearly lost the ball but snatched it back.
A roughing-the-passer call gave Indy the ball at the 11, then Manning handed off three straight times to Addai for the last 11 yards -- showing that, yes, maybe it really is about more than just the quarterback.
Or maybe not.
This one was Manning at his best.
He was the first-round draft pick in 1998, considered a prototypical, can't-miss guy despite the fact that he could never win the big one in Tennessee, falling to archrival Florida three times when the Vols might have been good enough to win it all.
He was 0-2 in the playoffs against New England, and the storyline all week was what a break the Colts got to get the Patriots at home, and what a sensational feeling it would be to finally knock off the team that bedeviled them most.
Manning conceded during the week that he could hear the clock ticking as his career entered its prime, especially as the disappointments mounted.
His teammates protected him, saying the quarterback shouldn't shoulder all the burden for the franchise's inability to break through and make the Super Bowl.
But now Indy has finally done it, for the first time since owner Bob Irsay's midnight move from Baltimore back in 1984 found the Colts in the Midwest, adopted at first by a basketball-loving fan base, then embraced when Manning came into the fold.
The Patriots lost for the first time in six trips to the AFC championship game, as coach Bill Belichick found himself uncharacteristically unable to shut down Peyton and Co.
The Colts piled on 455 yards and scored on six of their final eight drives, not counting the one where Manning kneeled down. The mystique that seemed so prevalent last week in an upset win over San Diego seemed missing, and this looked like a tired, desperate, defeated team in the end -- maybe in part because of a flu bug that worked its way through their locker room during the week.
So while that dynasty is dead, it is now Manning's turn to take a shot at history. Of course, with his performance Sunday -- many think he has already.