By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Peyton Manning had a mountain to climb and little more than two minutes to do it.
The 80 yards that separated him and the Colts from the end zone and a Super Bowl weren’t really uphill, it only seemed that way because of how many times Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady crumpled up Manning’s postseason hopes and left them in a ditch on the side of the road.
And so, when the quarterback began barking signals from the shotgun formation, trailing 34-31 with the ball at his 20-yard line and 2:17 left to play Sunday, the stakes couldn’t have been much clearer.
Pull out a win in the fourth-quarter for the 29th – and most important – time in his career, and quiet the doubters for at least two more weeks. Or else fail and go home early again, battered and empty-handed for the fifth consecutive year, three of those courtesy of his nemesis Belichick and archrival Brady.
“It’s great for him to get to the Super Bowl with a drive like that,” said Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who’s suffered alongside Manning for four of those losses. “It probably won’t shut anybody up until we win one. … but Peyton Manning is a great player.
“Anybody who doesn’t know that,” Dungy added, “doesn’t know much about football.”
The final drive wasn’t simply one of the coolest of Manning’s career, it capped the biggest comeback ever in a conference championship game. It was also hard to imagine one that was more satisfying, since he and Dungy and the Colts will be going to the Super Bowl at the expense of Belichick and Brady.
“I would have taken 35-0,” Manning laughed afterward. “You certainly don’t envision getting down 21-3 to the Patriots in any game, let alone the playoffs. That’s not the hole you want to be in. … But like coach Dungy said, we stayed calm and came back.”
Back the Colts came time and again, answering every New England shove with one of their own. The game was tied three times in the second half, before Indianapolis’ bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy paid some huge dividends at the end.
First, the Colts forced the Patriots to settle for a 43-yard field goal and a 34-31 lead with 3:35 remaining. And then, on New England’s next possession, they forced a punt that bounded into the end zone for a touchback and gave the ball back to Manning with 2:17 left.
“It was kind of like a boxing match,” Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. “You keep punching and punching at them, and at the finish, we didn’t punch hard enough.”
For all the hits and hurries on Manning, he came out for the decisive series remarkably sharp. His first throw was a quick out to Reggie Wayne for 11 and a first down, but the next one, a short toss over the middle, left Bryan Fletcher wrestling with New England linebacker Eric Alexander for a pass he couldn’t hold onto.
It was a prelude to maybe the best throw – and if not, maybe the most important – of Manning’s career.
“This is scary to say this publicly, because who knows where his ego will go from here,” Manning said about Fletcher, “but that was his call.”
Fletcher noticed Alexander gambling in coverage against him and told Manning, “Give me a corner route on that guy.”
And so, on second-and-10, with Belichick calling blitzes on nearly every play, Manning called the corner route and stepped up to avoid the rush and buy Fletcher enough time to get there. As the tight end reached the left sideline at the Patriots’ 37, Manning’s throw arched, letter perfect, just beyond Alexander’s fingertips and into the hands of Fletcher with just enough room to get both feet in-bounds.
His next throw was a slant to Reggie Wayne that netted 14 more yards, to the Patriots’ 23, but the blitzing strategy wound up costing New England twice on the play. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who’d wrapped himself around Manning’s ankles several times during the drive without sacking, was penalized this time for a blow to the helmet. That moved the Colts half the distance to the goal line.
“A nice little bonus,” Manning called it and from the 11, he turned the heavy lifting over to Joseph Addai. His running back needed three tries before punching the winning score into the end zone.
Manning simply wheeled around, put both hands in the air briefly and celebrated the way he always does – with a cup of Gatorade. His father Archie, who spent his own best years as a quarterback toiling in New Orleans with little reward, was one of the few who knew the emotions roiling inside his son’s gut.
“To do it that way, in the 2-minute drill,” Dad said, “that’s really icing on the cake for a quarterback.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
By JIM LITKE