INDIANAPOLIS - The whispers surely started at halftime. If Peyton Manning hears the whispers, if he has demons, there would be no ignoring them right now. They'd be out in full force. "He'll never win the big one." "He's the next Dan Marino." "He'll always be all stats and no glory."
"He can't win the big one."
Trailing the Patriots 21-6 at halftime of the AFC Championship Game, Peyton Manning and the Colts were faced once again with the realization that their season would end against New England. It was the same old story for the Colts - great regular season, disappointing playoffs.
But not this year.
It only took the Colts 11 minutes to come back to tie the game, as Manning led them on a pair of 76-yard drives that both ended in touchdowns. Game on.
The Patriots responded, as they always do. There was a reason they had won three championships in the previous six seasons. Tom Brady drove them right into the end zone, although an 80-yard kick return helped. The Patriots were back on top entering the fourth quarter.
Oh, the fourth quarter. The quarter where the defenses were helpless against the onslaught of the two quarterbacks. Peyton Manning, so close to his first Super Bowl, and Tom Brady, the three-time champion who would never fold under the pressure of this game. Manning and Brady spent the rest of the quarter trading scoring drives, showing why they were the two best quarterbacks in the game.
Manning answered first, a 67-yard drive that almost ended in disaster when Dominic Rhodes fumbled at the 1-yard line. But center Jeff Saturday saved the day, recovering for the tying touchdown. It was Brady's turn, and he drove the Patriots down inside the Colts 15. For once, the Colts stiffened, and New England kicked a field goal. Two minutes later, Indy tied it again with a field goal; it took New England less than two minutes to kick another one.
And then the defenses woke up. Getting the ball back with 3:49 left, the Colts could do nothing and had to punt. You could only imagine what was going through Manning's mind as the ball flew away. Was that his last chance? Did he just kick away another shot at a Super Bowl?
But no. The Colts stepped up, stopping the Patriots cold. New England could only take a minute off the clock before they punted the ball back. And so Manning was handed the ball, 80 yards from his first Super Bowl berth, and 2:17 to get there.
He didn't need nearly that long. It only took him 19 seconds to move the ball 70 yards, as three clutch throws and a penalty put the Colts in great position. Three plays later, Joseph Addai ran it in, giving the Colts their first lead of the game.
Now, no matter what happened, Manning couldn't be blamed for this one. He had given the Colts the lead with 1:00 to play in the AFC Championship Game. If they lost, it wouldn't be his fault. But he certainly wasn't thinking about that as the Patriots put a scare into the entire state of Indiana by driving to the Colts' 45-yard line. But finally - Brady's pass with 17 seconds left was intercepted. The Colts celebrated - they had finally beaten the Patriots. They were off to the Super Bowl, and there would be no doubt how that one would turn out.