By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts egg roll aficionado
You could hear the Gridiron Gods nailing shut the coffin on Peyton Manning's bloody and battered legacy.
The Colts trailed 21-3 midway through the second quarter. Manning had just thrown a terrible pass that was returned for a touchdown. And now he stood in the shadow of his own goal post, after getting sacked on two consecutive plays and then getting whistled for a delay-of-game penalty on third down, like a rookie quarterback who couldn't figure it all out.
Manning was unraveling – live on national television, against his nemesis from New England, in the biggest game of the season ...
The funeral procession was warming up outside. Fans inside the RCA Dome sat in the stunned silence befitting such a solemn occasion. The grave diggers waited at the cemetery, butts in their mouth and shovels at their side, ready to toss dirt on the coffin of Manning's legacy.
It was just as the Cold, Hard Football Facts had brazenly suggested would happen throughout our short but glorious history of mocking conventional wisdom and calling out the pretenders to the throne of gridiron greatness. Manning was nothing more than a Sunshine Superman who bullied bad teams and then curled up into a fetal ball when the Buddy Hintons of the pigskin playground stepped in his way. The Colts were soft. Dungy was overrated.
That was our summary of the Indy organization.
But something funny happened on the way to the gridiron graveyard. Manning – and the Colts – rose from the dead and launched the greatest comeback in title-game history. First, we heard him tap-tap-tapping from inside the coffin with a last-second field-goal drive at the end of the first half. Then he kicked open the top, lifted himself out and reached back in to pull out his teammates. Before long, Manning was healing lepers and turning water into beer.
Don't forget how bad this Indy offense had been throughout the playoffs: They had gone 19 consecutive postseason drives without a TD, dating all the way back to the Kansas City wild-card game. Then, the Colts came out of the locker room for the second half of the AFC title game and reeled off a 14-play, 76-yard TD drive. Two more long TD drives followed. The horse race was on.
When you think of the brilliant improbability of Indy's 38-34 comeback victory, think of this:
- The Colts ran 115 plays for 406 yards, 7 field goals and 0 TDs from the end of the Kansas City wild-card game through the first half of the AFC title game (not including kneel-downs).
- The Colts ran 45 plays for 341 yards, 1 field goal and 4 TDs in the second half of the AFC title game (not including kneel-downs).
When all was said and done, the Colts had risen from the dead, exorcised their demons and, well, you can fill in your favorite cheesy metaphor here. (By the way, if you think our metaphors are mixed, here's one from ESPN this morning: "Manning scratched a giant monkey off his to-do list.")
Some have already called this the greatest conference title game of all time. It may have been. But those proclamations are often made hastily, in the afterglow of a brilliant contest. Football has been around a long time and there are a lot of a great games in its illustrious history.
We don't know if it's the greatest. But we do know this: For Manning and for Colts fans, it's certainly the most satisfying. There is no stat for satisfying wins, but it's hard to envision any game registering more highly on the Glee-O-Meter than Indy's improbable 38-34 win over New England to earn the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl in 36 years.
So, in honor of a brilliant performance by a great player and a great team, we call up the Peking Garden of pigskin and order a pricy plate of crow-six-ways.
1. We said: Manning can't beat a good defense in crunch time
When the Colts face the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, they'll attempt to become the only team in NFL history to beat the league's three top scoring defenses in the same postseason.
Right now, Indy is among a small collection of teams that have bested the top two scoring defenses in the same postseason. All but the 1999 Titans won the Super Bowl.
- 1976 Raiders – beat Steelers (9.9 PPG) and Vikings (12.6 PPG)
- 1980 Raiders – beat Eagles (13.9 PPG) and Oilers (15.7 PPG)
- 1988 49ers – beat Bears (13.4 PPG) and Vikings (14.6 PPG)
- 1998 Broncos – beat Dolphins (16.6 PPG) and Jets (16.6 PPG)
- 1999 Titans – beat Jaguars (13.6 PPG) and Bills (14.3 PPG)
- 2004 Patriots – beat Steelers (15.7 PPG) and Eagles (16.2 PPG)
- 2006 Colts – beat Ravens (12.6 PPG) and Patriots (14.8 PPG)
Manning and the Colts didn't just beat the league's No. 2 defense Sunday, they shredded it like pork at a barbecue festival
– scoring 32 second-half points against a team that had allowed an average of little more than 1 TD per half all season long.
The total of 38 points was the most any team had hung on New England in 30 games – since Manning and these same Colts scored 40 on the Patriots in Foxboro back in the 2005 regular season. But that New England team did not have a good defense. This New England team did.
The Patriots haven't surrendered more than 38 points in a playoff game since their infamous 46-10 drubbing at the hands of the 1985 Bears. Even those Bears didn't score 32 in a single half: They netted an even 23 in each stanza.
2. We said: Manning can't win the big game
Manning's hometown newspaper, the Indy Star, declared the AFC title game the biggest game of Manning's career in big, bold, front-page letters yesterday.
He's never been under such scrutiny: essentially a prime-time game pairing the two best franchises and two biggest names in football. Early reports say this will go down as one of the highest-rated non-Super Bowls in modern history.
And there he was, when all was said and done, hoisting the Lamar Hunt Trophy and preparing for a trip to Super Bowl XLI. His heroics were the primary reason why.
3. We said: The Colts are soft
The Colts were soft – back when they got their heads handed to them by big, bruising opponents like the Patriots and Steelers.
But soft teams don't pull off the greatest comeback in conference title-game history.
In boxing terms, we say a fighter can "take a punch." Well, the Colts proved they can take a punch – from a club that has stood as the greatest big-game team in NFL history
, no less. They also proved that, after getting their feet up under them again, they can counterpunch and deliver a knockout blow.
4. We said: Tony Dungy can't "out-coach" Belichick
New England's legendary defensive mastermind has typically had his way with every coach in the league, especially in the postseason, where his amazing 13-2 record was second only to that of the guy for whom they named the Super Bowl trophy. His staff always made all the right moves, all the right decisions and all the right in-game changes to pull out one victory after another over supposedly superior teams.
Not last night. The numbers speak for themselves: The Colts destroyed the Patriots in the second half, and the Patriots simply had no answer for it.
The Patriots ran all over the Colts in the first half, to the tune of 19 carries for 85 rushing yards. The second half? Five carries for 8 yards.
5. We said: Belichick has Manning's number
Well, Belichick certainly did have Manning's number a couple years ago. But not anymore. Here's a look at the cumulative numbers from Manning's last three performances against New England:
75 for 120 (62.5%), 996 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs, 95.0 rating; 35.0 PPG
It's safe to say right now that Manning is inside Belichick's head.
6. We said: Manning doesn't have a signature moment on his résumé
We've long declared that Tom Brady was better than Peyton Manning. One of the primary reasons for our declaration was that one quarterback had a long list of signature performances, especially in the postseason. The other had none.
The equation looks quite a bit different today.
Until yesterday, what were Manning's greatest moments? A big comeback against Tampa – Tampa? – on Monday Night Football back in 2003? Please. A 38-31 win over the Chiefs and their wet-paper-bag defense in the 2003 playoffs? Sorry, no.
Here's a signature moment: You trail 34-31 with two minutes left in the AFC title game, against the second-best defense in football.
You take over on your own 20 and drive your team 80 yards in 1:17. You go 3-for-4 for 57 yards. And then, deep in enemy territory, you don't force the issue. Instead, you hand it off three times to your stud rookie running back, who punches it in for the game-winning score.
That's a signature moment – the kind they put in your Hall of Fame highlight reel in Canton, and the kind that the Cold, Hard Football Facts cannot dispute. They can only stand back and admire it.