And now there is suddenly newfound respect for Peyton Manning, across the nation, and hopefully in New England, and it’s well-deserved.

There will be a tidal wave of congratulations from a grateful nation that doesn’t have to watch the New England Patriots in another Super Bowl, and Patriot fans, as hard as it may be, should just keep our lips sealed and tip our caps to him, his team and his coach.

Down 21-3 after an interception return for a TD, Manning had every reason to cave in. But he didn’t. He led the greatest comeback in conference championship history. He did it. Not Tom Brady. So much for it being a short, warm winter. It’s still going to be a long, cold one in New England.

There will be at least one Boston scribe (I picture him with curly red hair) who will say this was the 2004 ALCS, with the Patriots cast as the Yankees and the Colts cast as a less hairy version of the Red Sox. The Colts’ last drive of the first half was Dave Roberts’ steal.

Just a field goal, just a stolen base. That’s all it took, they’ll say. The drive to start the second half was David Ortiz lining the single in Game 5. Reche Caldwell’s drops are A-Rod knocking the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove. Jeff Saturday’s fumble recovery in the end zone is Johnny Damon greeting Javier Vazquez with a mighty swing and depositing one in the right field seats at Yankee Stadium. Joseph Addai’s TD run was Keith Foulke coming out of the pen to shut ’em down in the 9th.

Another angle I’m already sniffing out is the Bill Belichick plays Martyball angle. Never thought we’d see that, huh?

The Patriots have gone conservative with big leads in AFC championships before. It’s one thing to call off the dogs for the last drive of the first half against a Kordell Stewart or a Ben Roethlisberger. It’s quite another to give Peyton Manning a chance to regain some confidence, the Colts offense to find a rhythm and for their defense to regroup.

But the unfortunate truth is that Bill Belichick knew it long before Jim Nantz and Phil Simms started pounding home the point relentlessly. The Patriot defense was tired and beaten up. Three rounds of playoffs with a cross country trip mixed in were taking their toll. Six years of playing deep into January, not to mention assorted injuries and life-threatening maladies finally caught up to the front seven. Having to give guys named Baker and Alexander significant playing time caught up with them. Dallas Clark was happy to see them on the field, I can tell you that.

Belichick knew this going back to the last drive of the first half. He called off the dogs because he knew that a lot of them were getting up there in dog years and were pretty much spent. He had to play it that way.

That doesn’t excuse some of the decisions made by the Patriot brain trust. Going with a handoff to Heath Evans on third-and-long on the second-to-last drive isn’t exactly going for the jugular, if you know what I mean.

Tom Brady isn’t blameless either. Not seeing Reche Caldwell uncovered until it was too late was the antithesis of his usual heads–up game management. Not that Caldwell would have caught it if he’d been spotted earlier. Brady missed a couple of other open receivers late, and, of course, the interception. Get ready for the “If that had been Manning, he’d be labeled a choker” chorus from the Haters of the Flying Elvis and their Golden Boy quarterback. I’d still take him over Manning any day.

If you want to crown Manning’s butt, then crown him. Lord knows, we’ll get two weeks of verbal tongue baths for the guy from the ESPNs and so forth. We’ve been enjoying six years of bouquets being tossed Brady’s way.

The better team won. The better quarterback won, at least last night. The Patriots were fortunate to get as far as they did, anyway.

If you wore a Brady, Bruschi or Brown jersey last night, that’s little consolation, and you probably hate the Colts right now. I know you’ll probably join me in hoping for the Bears to re-enact Super Bowl XX in two weeks, but deep down, you know that isn’t happening. The Colts have cleared their biggest hurdle and are destined to rid themselves off all their angst.

Maybe that Red Sox-Yankees analogy isn’t so bad. I think I’m starting to feel like a Yankees fan, circa 2004.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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