Leading the Colts back from an 18-point deficit - the largest comeback in conference championship history - Manning put together four masterful touchdown drives in the second half last night to lift third-seeded Indianapolis to a 38-34 victory over the fourth-seeded New England Patriots in an AFC championship game for the ages.
In what the hometown paper called "The Biggest Game of His Life" in a headline yesterday, Manning responded by completing 27 of 47 passes for 349 yards and one touchdown to spearhead an improbable rally after being down 21-3.
"We just wanted to make this interesting for the fans and make this an instant classic," Manning joked.
With two minutes left in the game, the pressure of the AFC championship game and his lifetime mediocre playoff career fell on the shoulders of Manning.
Trailing 34-31, Manning drove the Colts 80 yards in 77 seconds with an 11-yard pass to Reggie Wayne, a 32-yard throw to Bryan Fletcher and a 14-yard toss to Wayne (which was magnified by a roughing-the-passer penalty on linebacker Tully Banta-Cain). Rookie running back Joseph Addai's 3-yard touchdown put Indianapolis ahead 38-34 with one minute left in the game.
"I said a little prayer on that last drive," said Manning, who remembered watching "The Drive" orchestrated by former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway recently on TV. "I don't know if you're supposed to pray for stuff like that, but I said a little prayer."
After taking their only lead in the game, the Colts wrapped up their first Super Bowl trip in 36 seasons when safety Marlin Jackson intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with 16 seconds left.
It also sealed the first NFL title-game appearance for Manning, football's most prolific quarterback, who had been 3-6 in the postseason before this season and carried the reputation for not playing his best when the stakes were the highest.
"There was no doubt that he was going to take us down the field and score," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "It was great for him to go to the Super Bowl this way. It probably won't shut anyone up until he wins the Super Bowl. But he's a great quarterback. Anyone that doesn't know that doesn't know much about football."
This marks the first time the Colts will play in the NFL championship game since moving from Baltimore in March 1984. In their 22nd season in Indianapolis, the Colts had lost their previous two AFC championship games.
"We have one more mission," said owner Jim Irsay, whose father, Robert, relocated the Colts from Baltimore. "We're not done yet."
The Super Bowl will be hard-pressed to trump the dramatics of the AFC championship game.
Two offensive linemen - New England's Logan Mankins and Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday - scored touchdowns off fumble recoveries.
The final 19 minutes featured three ties and no lead larger than four points.
And the Colts ended a playoff streak of 20 touchdown-less drives by scoring 32 points in the second half.
"We just let too many opportunities get away," said Brady, who had won his previous eight playoff games decided by seven points or less.
The Patriots, who were trying to become the first team since the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers to win four Super Bowls in six seasons, jumped out to a 21-3 lead midway through the second quarter on scores by Mankins (fumble recovery), running back Corey Dillon (7-yard run) and cornerback Asante Samuel (39-yard interception return).
After having to settle for a field goal to end the first half, Manning proved his playoff mettle by scoring touchdowns on the Colts' two third-quarter drives.
He capped the first series with a 1-yard sneak for a score and then hit defensive tackle-occasional fullback Dan Klecko for a 1-yard touchdown pass. The Colts tied the game at 21 on a two-point conversion when Manning rolled out and found Marvin Harrison in the end zone.
For the rest of the game, the teams traded punch after punch. After Brady threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney, Saturday reached the end zone when he picked up a fumble by running back Dominic Rhodes near the goal line.
After the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski hit a 28-yard field goal, the Colts' Adam Vinatieri kicked a 36-yarder to tie the game at 31.
But when Gostkowski converted a 43-yarder with 3:49 remaining, it left too much time for Manning.
After both teams went three-and-out, Manning was 3-for-4 for 57 yards on the game-winning drive despite injuring his throwing hand in the second half (he hit it on the helmet of left tackle Tarik Glenn).
"I don't get into monkeys or vindication," said Manning, who was 0-2 in playoff games against New England and had never reached the Super Bowl in his first eight seasons in the league. "I don't play that card."
Coincidentally, the only two Super Bowls during the Colts' Baltimore era came in Miami.
They lost to the New York Jets, 16-7, in January 1969 in an upset that will be remembered for quarterback Joe Namath guaranteeing victory. Two years later, the Colts won their only Super Bowl, beating the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, on a game-ending 32-yard field goal by rookie Jim O'Brien.
"Jim Irsay said this is where he's always wanted to take this franchise," said Dungy, who became the second African-American head coach to reach the Super Bowl only hours after the Bears' Lovie Smith became the first. "I couldn't be happier for the guys. We did it the hard way."