The NFL viewers had become so accustomed over the years to seeing Peyton Manning with that look of bewilderment on his face each and every time he faced the Pats, nothing Sunday seemed different once the scoreboard read 21-3 in the second quarter. How many of us out there thought – “here we go again.” I can’t believe that for a second Manning didn’t say the same thing to himself. What was different this time though, was instead of going into that confused shell he had in years past in the big game, Manning responded like a Hall of Famer that he will one day be, and led the Colts back in what will likely go down as the greatest AFC Championship game of all-time.
Manning’s numbers were gaudy, as he was 27-for-47 for 349 yards and a score, but those numbers even fail in comparison to the leadership and poise that he showed in leading the Colts on a furious comeback that saw the game tied up 11 minutes into the third quarter. It seemed like with each pass, Manning and the Colts offense gained more and more confidence, which is something you never thought you’d see after he threw a pick that was returned for a score that made it 21-3 with 9:25 left in the second quarter.
But props to Peyton and the Colts. They fed off the crowds energy, and everytime it looked like a rally would fall short, the team came up with a big play to keep a drive going. The biggest part of their game plan seemed to want to exploit the Pats middle of the secondary, using tight end Dallas Clark. Clark, who had 367 yards the entire season catching the ball, caught 6 passes for 137 yards, averaging 22.8 yards per catch. They had to have seen a soft spot in that area of the Pats D this past week in film, and totally used it to their advantage.
While the Colts offense was shifting into high gear, the defense had plenty of time to rest, be fresh, and make plays when Tom Brady and New England had the ball. At one point in the game, over 30 offensive plays, the Colts ran 29 and the Pats 1. No team can get in sync with that type of disparity in plays run. When the Pats did have the ball, they seemed rushed, confused, and the huge drops in the second half pointed the way that the Colts defense and the crowd clearly was in New England’s head.
The final drive of the game for the Colts was the same type of drive they had last year vs the Steelers in the AFC Divisional playoff game. They were down by 3 at 21-18, and needed to drive for either a game-winning score or a tying field goal. They hit some pass plays, and got a shot at the end zone that fell incomplete. Instead of going back to that, they settled for a third down pass play that fell incomplete, and then a shot to tie the game. We all know what happened. But Sunday, that fortune was turned around. This time they sealed the deal, and scored the touchdown that put them ahead to stay with 1 minute left.
As for Manning, much has been said throughout his career about not winning the big game. Sunday was the biggest win of his career, and it came against his arch-rival. “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.” Now they have a shot at greatness, and with Manning at the helm, that shot seems well within their range.