INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS - On his finest day as a pro, quarterback Peyton Manning played pitch and catch with his friends, backyard style. Marvin Harrison went across the middle, Brandon Stokley went deep and the Indianapolis Colts went to the next round.
Some people thought it might never happen. The Colts were not in that crowd.
"I hope people think this was a big game," Colts coach Tony Dungy said, gently scolding his audience. "I heard he couldn't win a big game. We thought this was a big game."
Manning not only banished the Denver Broncos from the postseason, but he also knocked the skeptics off his back. His dazzling performance in a 41-10 dismantling of the Broncos in yesterday's AFC wild-card game at the RCA Dome was one for the ages.
He threw more touchdown passes (four) than incompletions (two) in the first half. He directed touchdown drives on the Colts' first four possessions and scoring drives on their first seven. He threw for 327 yards and 31 points in the first 30 minutes.
He finished with 22 completions in 26 attempts for 377 yards, five touchdowns and the fourth perfect passer rating in NFL postseason history (158.3).
What those gaudy numbers added up to was a trip to Kansas City for an AFC semifinal berth on Sunday for the Colts (13-4) against the second-seeded Chiefs (13-3).
It also produced the first home playoff win for the Colts in 33 years. The last came in 1971, when the franchise, playing in Baltimore, beat Oakland, 27-17, in the AFC championship game en route to a Super Bowl victory.
Burdened with an 0-3 postseason record in five NFL seasons, Manning handled his coming out with grace.
"It's one playoff win," he said. "[But] it's good to get it at home."
His teammates, though, were ebullient over the fact their quarterback no longer has to wear a label as a big-game loser.
"The guy works as hard as anybody in the NFL," said offensive lineman Jeff Saturday. "That's a bunch of nonsense. He doesn't win a game by himself, and he doesn't lose a game by himself.
"I'm glad for him that he can put all that nonsense to rest."
Actually, Manning scalded it. His first series yesterday lasted six plays and ended with a 31-yard touchdown pass to former Ravens receiver Stokley when Denver's safeties came up on the play-action fake.
The Colts' second series lasted eight plays and ended with a bizarre, 46-yard scoring play to Harrison. The Pro Bowl wide-out showed his moxie and the Broncos their inattentiveness on the play. Harrison went to the ground at the Denver 30 in making the catch, and when no Broncos touched him down, he simply got up and raced to the end zone for a 14-3 lead.
"That was one you don't really expect in a playoff game on a routine play like that," Manning said. "I was already looking to the sidelines and looking for the next play, and all of a sudden I see Marvin just sprinting to the end zone."
The Broncos, who had beaten the Colts handily here two weeks ago in the regular season, were undressed in the second quarter. Denver cornerback Lenny Walls released Harrison to safety Sam Brandon on a double move, and Harrison easily beat the free safety to the corner of the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown.
With less than two minutes left in the half, Stokley mentioned to Manning that Denver's middle linebacker, Al Wilson, was not getting a deep drop on passes. Just like that, Manning zipped a perfect pass to the wide-open Stokley, who outran Wilson and Brandon on an 87-yard touchdown.
"It was very sweet," Stokley said after a four-catch, 144-yard day. "I haven't had a chance to get out in the open and run like that for a while."
Manning threw just one touchdown in the second half, a 7-yarder to Reggie Wayne. It wasn't until Edgerrin James (78 rushing yards) lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter, on the Colts' eighth possession of the game, that the Broncos got a defensive stop.
The Broncos (10-7) were clearly overmatched from the outset.
"The Colts had a great game plan coming in," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said, "and they probably executed that game plan the best I've seen. There are times you feel you're ready to play and other times you don't. I would have thought we were ready to play, but it was hard to match their intensity throughout the game."
The Colts were embarrassed in the 31-17 loss to Denver two weeks ago. One change they effected worked wonders - they moved Saturday from center to right guard to handle the Broncos' Trevor Pryce and inserted Tupe Peko at center.
But Manning did the rest with a magical effort.
"I'll enjoy tonight and at the same time, Kansas City doesn't care we won a playoff game," he said. "It's good to get that little monkey off my back. I'm sure by Wednesday, it will be something else that will be created and I'll try to have an answer for you."