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AFC Championship: Colts 38, Patriots 34

By Eddie Pells
Associated Press
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.
Manning 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.
So while the Nerw England 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.

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