FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As the final minutes wound down on New England's 43-22 AFC divisional round playoff victory over Indianapolis, a group of fans in the stands behind the south end zone of Gillette Stadium broke into a mocking, singsong chant.
"Pey-TON MANN-ing. Pey-TON MANN-ing."
It's an old favorite around here, always good for some laughs. Such a favorite that even with Manning about 2,000 miles away resting up for Denver's game against San Diego on Sunday, it was worth bringing out as a joke.
Make no mistake, Patriots fans prefer the Chargers upset the Broncos, if only to place the AFC championship game back in Gillette next week. Who doesn't want home-field advantage? Officially, the Patriots' players expressed no preference, even if it means traveling to Colorado.
For most of everyone else, though, the choice is obvious. Bring on the Broncos and a delectable matchup, another go-around of two of the era's most sustainable winners – the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Pats and whomever Manning is QBing.
All due respect and apologies to the more-than-capable Chargers, of course.
This entire season in the AFC has set up for a single showdown at the end, the two best teams, the two biggest stars, the two ways of football life on a desperate collision course as each side tries to acquire another championship and prove that their prime isn't past them. If anything, due to career windows shutting, it'd be bigger than ever.
New England arrives first thanks to a team effort that held back the budding genius of Andrew Luck in a way that left Belichick almost giddy and explains why these guys just keep coming and coming and coming.
The Patriots scored six touchdowns, all rushing the ball. They controlled time of possession by ten minutes. They got four interceptions. They recorded three sacks. They converted 61 percent of their third downs.
Other than a botched snap on a punt that cost them a safety, this was like a New England fantasy performance. And heck, even that brought some measure of satisfaction. When punter Ryan Allen was hurt on the play, place kicker Stephen Gostkowski was forced into punting action. He promptly bombed some deep ones, including a 53-yarder. Brady, meanwhile, had to become the holder on kicks – which he said he hadn't done since the 2000 Orange Bowl back in college. He performed perfectly.
"That's kind of playoff football," Belichick said. "Guys get called on to do something maybe they haven't done in several years."
"Maybe I'll try renegotiating my contract or something for doing more work," Brady joked.
It was that much fun for New England.
Brady, who went 13 of 25 for 198 passing yards, was overshadowed by LeGarrette Blount, the running back who was previously best known for punching a Boise State player after a game.
Since then Blount had some moments in Tampa, especially as a rookie, but wound up benched and eventually traded to New England last offseason for a seventh-round pick and a utility player. In other words, not much.
On Saturday he ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns, the latest in a strong stretch of play here.
What happened? Was Belichick some genius who saw the remnants of talent where no one else did? Well, sort of, but not really.
Blount's problem was obvious. Everyone could see it. The 6-foot, 250-pounder was too upright when he ran with the ball. He was a big, easy target for defenders. On contact he lacked leverage. The high school and college days of just blasting through smaller opponents was over. This is the NFL.
So coaches screamed for him to embrace one of the basic tenants of the sport – pad level, low man wins, etc.
"They were telling me, 'Change your pad level and it'll make a world of difference,'" Blount said postgame, standing in front of his locker. "They told me that everywhere I've been."
Only he never changed. He kept running the same way. It almost ran him out of the league.
"It's just tough to change a habit you've been doing all your life," he said.
Finally this fall he found himself in front of Belichick, the legend, who told him the same old thing. Told him, demanded it, whatever. This time it took. So he changed. The pad level is, "a lot lower."
"Because I had to," Blount said.
"Because Bill told me to."
Bill told him. That was it. Bill told him. Sometimes it's that simple – or seems that way for New England.
This year has been riddled with setbacks, scandals, injuries. They lost Wes Welker to free agency. They lost Aaron Hernandez to a murder charge. Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo and so many others went down with injuries. This roster is patchwork.
"I know people have counted us out at times during this year," Brady said.
Yet here they are again, back in the AFC title game for a third consecutive year, seeking a sixth Super Bowl appearance for Belichick and Brady. Same as it ever was.
And so if it were their old friend Peyton across the way to get there, well wouldn't that be fitting?
Brady is 10-4 against Manning, including a 34-31 overtime victory here back in November. New England holds a 2-1 advantage in the playoffs, although they've split AFC title games (NE in 2003 season; Manning, then with the Colts, in 2006).
Both sides are relentlessly competitive, perhaps to a fault at times. Their narratives have been told together, interchangeable and interacting. For this one, the buildup, the pressure, the history … it'll probably be the highest rated conference title game of all time.
First Denver has to get there, of course. The Chargers don't care about story lines. They may be the hottest team in the league.
Right now, all that is certain is that New England will be waiting, per usual. Somehow, someway it is again in the final four. This time it was pad level, of all the things.
It was enough. Enough to leave the fans bored of taunting Andrew Luck and his Amish-inspired beard. Enough to leave them with nothing to do but waste the fourth quarter making fun of a quarterback who wasn't even here, yet like the best kind of rival, is never far from their mind.