INDIANAPOLIS – Quarterback Peyton Manning couldn't watch. He sat on a water cooler as far from the field as you could get without being in the stands, alternately looking down and away.
He also said a little prayer. Maybe it wasn't appropriate, but when you've done all you can to get to the NFL's promised land, you figure God can let you slide a little.
Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, after years of playoff failure and heartbreak, finally got their redemption Sunday with a 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. Indianapolis will face the Chicago Bears, who beat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game, in the I-65 Super Bowl in Miami on Feb. 4.
Manning engineered an 80-yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown with exactly one minute remaining. He then retired to the sideline as Patriots counterpart Tom Brady took the field. This is where Brady has made his legacy, leading one game-ending drive after another over his three-championship career.
It's no wonder Manning couldn't watch. As most of his teammates stood and watched the defense, Manning asked for divine intervention – anything that might help the dream and also quiet all the critics who have wondered why Manning and the Colts haven't been able to win big games like this one.
"I don't know if you're supposed to pray for stuff like that," Manning said before turning a little sheepish about the matter.
Maybe not, but that didn't stop his famous father from doing the same. Archie Manning left his luxury box seats midway through the third quarter and headed for the tunnel beneath the stadium. It gave him more room to pace and work off all his nervous energy pent up from watching a frustrating first half.
For the first 30 minutes of this game, the Colts looked like they were about to drop a third straight postseason contest to the Patriots. Manning did his part by throwing an interception to Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel that was returned for a touchdown, giving New England a 21-3 lead.
The Colts ended the half with a field goal to close within 21-6. But to win, they would have to overcome the biggest deficit ever in a conference title game and the fact that Brady was 62-2 in his career in games when the Patriots led at halftime.
Little wonder that the elder Manning started talking to God earlier than his record-setting son.
"This is a great place to pace," Archie Manning said of the tunnel. "There was nobody here but me and the security guard."
It's too bad he left because he missed fully seeing one of the most remarkable second-half performances in NFL history. The Colts reeled off 32 points, including four touchdowns. Manning completed 14 of 23 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown.
But even as Manning and the team got on track, there were numerous miscues that almost prevented the historic comeback.
After the Colts had tied the score at 21 in the third quarter, the special teams' unit committed the first of several gaffes by allowing an 80-yard kickoff return that set up a Patriots touchdown.
The Colts again tied the score at 28 before they botched punt coverage by committing a personal foul that set up a field goal. Finally, the Colts allowed another long kickoff return that allowed New England to take a 34-31 lead with 3:49 remaining.
After an exchange of punts, the Colts had the ball at their own 20-yard line with 2:17 remaining. Manning quickly hit passes of 11 yards to Reggie Wayne, 32 to Brian Fletcher and 14 more to Wayne. Add in a personal foul call and the Colts were at the New England 11 with 1:53 remaining. Indy burned some clock with two running plays before they faced a third down from the Patriots' 3.
With the Patriots obviously looking for a pass, the Colts made a wonderful call to run a draw with running back Joseph Addai for the game-winning score. Worst case, the Colts would get stopped and kick a field goal for a tie.
"It opened up like … oh, we have an expression for it on our team, but I can't say it," Manning said.
Manning then went to his spot on the sideline. His prayer was answered when defensive back Marlin Jackson sealed the game with an interception of Brady with 16 seconds remaining. Manning stood up, spiked the baseball cap he was wearing and calmly headed to the field for the final snap.
His journey to the Super Bowl now was a reality.