Road wins bring Colts, Patriots full circle

Peyton Manning survived the backlash of Baltimore. Now the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts gets one more crack at the salty New England Patriots and the elusive Super Bowl.

The Colts and Patriots earned berths in the AFC championship game next week with two road upsets in a surreal divisional playoff round.


Manning's reward for beating the Ravens on Saturday is a chance to shed the big-game albatross that San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer couldn't yesterday.

Manning will face the team that has tormented him more than any other in his career and twice knocked him out of the playoffs. That he gets the Patriots in the cozy RCA Dome is either great fortune, or merely setting the stage for another hard fall.


The Patriots arrived in their fourth championship game in the past six years by scoring the game's final 11 points to eliminate the top-seeded Chargers, 24-21, in San Diego. In a sloppy, seven-turnover game, Schottenheimer contributed to his team's demise with questionable clock management that left the Chargers without a timeout for the frenetic finish.

Schottenheimer wasted one timeout with a meritless replay challenge in the fourth quarter after Marlon McCree intercepted Tom Brady and then had the ball stripped away from him by the Patriots' Troy Brown.

Had Schottenheimer saved one of his three timeouts, he would have had time to get Nick Kaeding closer for a potential game-tying field goal than the 54-yarder he missed short with three seconds left.

Schottenheimer, 5-13 in the postseason with a personal six-game losing streak that stretches back to Kansas City, reportedly was coaching for his job. He did not coach cautiously, however. His team simply let him down with four turnovers and critical personal foul penalties.

As tumultuous as the AFC bracket went this weekend, two NFC games produced the expected result. The New Orleans Saints earned their first appearance in the NFC championship game with a 27-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night and continued their inspirational comeback saga for the hurricane-battered city.

The No. 1-seeded Chicago Bears dispatched the Seattle Seahawks in overtime yesterday, 27-24, when Robbie Gould hit a career-long 49-yard field goal.

That sets up a frosty NFC final in Chicago, where besieged quarterback Rex Grossman threw for 282 yards against Seattle, including a 30-yard strike to Rashied Davis to set up the winning kick. Grossman came through his personal crucible with his confidence intact.

The Bears will have to play considerably better defense against the NFL's No. 1 offense, however, if they're going to advance to the Super Bowl.


Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander gained 108 yards and wore down the Bears by game's end. Seattle took a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter before a 41-yard field goal by Gould forced overtime.

The Saints' offensive playmakers could have a field day against a suspect Bears secondary.

Chicago's first playoff win since 1994 marked the seventh time in 10 years the top two seeds reached the NFC championship game.

The AFC showdown will be a grudge match because the Colts were knocked out of the playoffs in successive years by the Patriots.

Manning suffered through his worst career playoff game in the 2003 conference championship game. In a 24-14 loss at New England, he threw four interceptions, was sacked four times and completed only 23 of 47 throws.

The next season, the Colts were ousted by New England in the divisional round, 20-3. Manning threw one interception in that game and had no touchdown passes.


This season the rivalry was renewed at Foxboro, where the Colts pulled out a 27-20 win. That victory ultimately gave them the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Patriots and earned Sunday's home game.

Manning passed for 326 yards and two touchdowns in that game. But this is the one everyone will remember.