Ten years later, Brady-Manning AFC title game tilt lives on as narrative-changing classic

Peyton Manning finally erased some of his demons 10 years ago this week against the New England Patriots. (AP)
Peyton Manning finally erased some of his demons 10 years ago this week against the New England Patriots. (AP)

Before you go back and watch a single snap of one of the most underrated games in NFL history, which happened 10 years ago this Saturday, we suggest a quick scan of one of the strangest box scores that ever was boxed up.

In perhaps the most meaningful head-to-head battle in the careers of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the men scoring touchdowns on that day were two 300-plus-pound offensive linemen (both scoring their only career TDs), a defensive lineman-turned-fullback, a running back playing his final NFL game, a Manning rushing (?) TD, a journeyman receiver (who scored a TD that wouldn’t have counted by today’s NFL rules) and, to cap it, a rookie running back starting his third-ever game.

The strangely fascinating box score from Patriots at Colts in the AFC championship game on Jan. 21, 2007. (NFL GSIS)
The strangely fascinating box score from Patriots at Colts in the AFC championship game on Jan. 21, 2007. (NFL GSIS)

The greatest of both Brady and Manning certainly were on display in the AFC championship on that strange, wonderful stage back on Jan. 21, 2007. Each of them also stared into the abyss — Manning down big early to his annual tormentors, and Brady ending up in the unfamiliar position of not delivering when everyone (maybe even Manning) expected him to.

“We assumed we were going to go down and score and win it,” former Patriots center Dan Koppen said this week. “Even with all the mistakes we made in the second half, we knew we had the chance to do it. We just didn’t get it done. That still sticks with me.”

Without this game, which is tremendous and weird in its own right, Brady vs. Manning isn’t nearly as much of a rivalry. This was the game that cemented it as must-see TV and changed the narrative that Manning couldn’t best Brady on the big stage, even as much as this random cast of point scorers quietly dominated the day.

“It was a weird game, that’s for sure,” said former Colts defensive tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland, now an analyst for SEC Network, by phone this week. “It was like, ‘How did three fat guys score?’ Big-man touchdown party … I loved it. But it was weird.”

“That was a first for me, that many big guys scoring,” Koppen said.

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Three hours and 34 minutes of taut, fraught football — from Marlin Jackson making the tackle on the opening kickoff to Jackson ending it with a final-minute interception of Brady, his college teammate — delivered us a classic that shouldn’t soon be forgotten.

There’s a reason why this game, and not the Super Bowl victory two weeks later, was selected overwhelmingly as Colts fans’ No. 1 choice as their top pick when the NFL released three classic games in each franchise’s history on Youtube. This was the day that changed the course of the team and Manning’s career forever. This was Manning’s and the Colts’ real Super Bowl, looking back, not beating the Chicago Bears two weeks later, strange as that might sound.

The Patriots rolled into Indianapolis with full “who’s your daddy?” status, as Brady had led six straight Patriots victories over Manning’s Colts to start their head-to-head rivalry, with two of those coming in AFC title game wins in Foxborough. Brady also entered this game with a postseason record of 14-1 with six game-winning drives in the playoffs, including one seven days earlier. But the pendulum in the rivalry was starting to swing back away from them; the Colts struck back with two straight road victories over the Patriots in the series, including one at New England two months earlier.

“Going into that game, it was the biggest soap opera you could imagine,” former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk said. “We were not division rivals [anymore], but we just kept running into them and we were the two best teams at the time, I felt. There was no avoiding each other.”

Tom Brady had a postseason record of 14-1 coming into the 2006 AFC championship game. (AP)
Tom Brady had a postseason record of 14-1 coming into the 2006 AFC championship game. (AP)

Now they finally were meeting back in the old RCA Dome for the first time in 1,148 days despite this being the seventh time these once-time divisional rivals had played each other over a four-season span. The Patriots were frankly lucky to be there, coming off a win the week before against a San Diego Chargers team roundly believed to be the best in the NFL that season. But the Patriots didn’t see it as luck.

“We had a lot of confidence coming out of that game and knowing the Colts like we did,” former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk said this week. “We prepared so well, had a great week of preparation coming into that game and we trusted our coaches to have a great plan for them.”

Added Koppen: “We felt like if we played our best game and they played their best game, we were going to win.”

And these were the Colts who had never beaten the Patriots on this type of stage and who were not long removed from the Jacksonville Jaguars running roughshod — 375 rush yards! — in Week 15 against them. Even with the playoff improvement that followed, it felt like it would take the Colts’ best defensive effort and Manning’s finest hour on the same day. Oh, and go do it against Brady and Bill Belichick, too. Best of luck.

“We knew we needed a big day from the defense,” McFarland said. “Coach [Tony] Dungy told us right before the first playoff game — everyone’s talking about adjustments — and he said, ‘Let’s me tell you what we’re going to change. We’re not gonna change nothing. We’re going to do our jobs better. That’s the only thing we’re going to do better.’

“We just lined up and did our jobs better. That was the adjustment.”

Still, this was not a vintage Patriots team in retrospect. They had traded Deion Branch, Brady’s closest ally and most trusted target, to the Seattle Seahawks before the season and Brady was pissed about it. “A lot of guys were not happy about that,” Troy Brown said. “We had receivers coming in on Monday or Tuesday, we’d pick them up that week, and they’d be playing 40 snaps on Sunday. It was unreal.” Wes Welker and Randy Moss had not yet arrived; Belichick traded for them after this game in response to how few weapons they had in the 2006 season.

It would be Corey Dillon’s final NFL game and Brown’s second-to-last career game. An injured Rodney Harrison did not suit up for New England. Brady’s top pass catchers were Reche Caldwell (coming off ACL surgery, and he was terrible in this game), Benjamin Watson, Brown, Kevin Faulk (who would get hurt vs. the Colts), Jabar Gaffney and Doug Gabriel. And yet Brady was mostly brilliant all season. Considering who he was throwing to, that season might speak to his greatness almost as much as his MVP season of 2007 should.

There were other storylines all over this game. It was the 13th anniversary of Robert Kraft buying the team. Turncoat kicker Adam Vinatieri, who met with several of his former Patriots teammates before the game, set the game in motion with the opening kickoff in his first season with the Colts. Safety Bob Sanders, the Colts’ defensive tone setter, was back in the lineup after missing the final 12 regular-season games. And yes, Brady-Manning IX — what would be the best game of their history.

As they say today, this game was about to be lit.

Prior to kickoff in the Colts’ locker room, center Jeff Saturday delivered a pregame speech: “It’s our time,” he told his team. The Colts players to this day still talk about that moment and that message.

“He and Tony Dungy made sure we knew it, too,” McFarland said.

But early on it was the Patriots resuming their old, familiar roles of Colts antidote. They came out running the ball and converting fourth downs, keeping Manning on the sideline. Dillon would run 35 yards (the Patriots’ long gain of the day) on 4th-and-inches to set up a stunning touchdown: Brady and Laurence Maroney botched a handoff, and the ball somehow squirted from the hands of Colts defenders Sanders and Nick Harper 3 yards forward and into the end zone. Koppen couldn’t believe what he had seen.

“The ball just squirted forward. It seemed to come out of nowhere,” Koppen said. “So naturally, you just go after it. The ball bounced the other way. If it would have bounced the right way, it would have been mine.

“That was as close as I’ve come to scoring in a game. I’d like to think it was a heads-up play by both of us.”

Mankins’ end-zone recovery made it 7-0, and after a Vinatieri field goal the Patriots again converted on their next drive with a huge play on fourth down. Brady hit Brown, playing the second-to-last game of his career, for 27 yards on 4th-and-6 to the Indianapolis 7-yard line.

“It was designed to go to me,” Brown said. “I probably should have scored if I was a year younger. [laughs] My knee didn’t allow it.”

Dillon walked in for a score on the next play, and just like that the Colts were down two 14-3.

“The Colts left it on the practice field, no question about it,” Colts play-by-play announcer Bob Lamey said on the radio broadcast.

After nearly fumbling the ensuing kickoff, the Colts tried to settle themselves down with eons to play. But Manning instead made it worse. Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, one of the game’s best pickpockets, disguised his coverage well, along with safety James Sanders, who rotated over the top late. Manning never saw it and threw a gift of a pick-6 to Samuel, who coasted into the end zone for a 21-3 stunner of a lead.

“Everyone on our sideline said, ‘Keep your foot on the pedal,'” Faulk said. “We knew it was not going to be that easy for four quarters.”

The Dome was church quiet. So much so that Colts head coach Tony Dungy’s all-important message easily could be picked up on the NFL Films microphones: “We’ve got plenty of time left.” That message, it turned out, was exactly what they needed to hear at that moment. And quietly on the other sideline, there was a more subtle turn despite the 18-point lead.

“It was starting to get very hot on the sideline,” Brown said, “and even though we were up 21-3, I got the sense that … I could see on guys’ faces, it was like, we just didn’t have the energy. Guys were spent. I spent so much time trying to pump guys up, but the fatigue was just kicking in for everybody. We were starting to run out of gas at that point.”

But the Colts still botched their next offensive possession, and the Patriots amazingly drove to the Indianapolis 27 with five minutes left in the half, appearing to be driving for what would have been an incredible lead of 24-3 or 28-3. But two crushing penalties (one negating a gain into the red zone) and a sack knocked the Patriots way out of field-goal range.

“My biggest memory of that game, believe it or not, was getting called for a pass-interference call on that drive that wasn’t pass interference,” Brown said. “It was one of the worst penalties I ever got. I am not sure what [the referee] was doing, or what was called because there was contact made. I didn’t initiate it. It was still a baffling play to this day.”

Manning responded with a had-to-have it drive to close out the half — 15 plays, 80 yards — but left points on the board when the Colts couldn’t score a touchdown on three shots from the New England 6. It was 21-6 Patriots, and even though Manning would get the ball first, he had a lot of work to do.

Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick after the Colts beating the Patriots in a classic 10 years ago. (AP)
Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick after the Colts beating the Patriots in a classic 10 years ago. (AP)

“Tony Dungy came in and said, ‘Look, guys, we’re not in an ideal situation, but it’s our time and let’s go play ball.’ We knew there was never an easy way it was going to get done. But we knew that in order to get that championship, we were going to have to come back and do it against the Patriots, our big rival. That’s what made it more special,” McFarland said. “I don’t think it would have felt so sweet had we beat anyone else.”

Manning started willing his team back. He led two 76-yard touchdown drives on the Colts’ first two possessions, sandwiched a Patriots three-and-out. Manning capped the first drive (eight runs, six passes) with a 1-yard sneak to make it 21-13. And the second drive felt like the kind of knife the Patriots typically twisted into others: Manning hit defensive lineman-turned-fullback Dan Klecko, who was drafted by the Patriots three years earlier and given his first taste on offense with them, for a 1-yard TD. Oddly, it would be Manning’s only touchdown pass of the game.

The two-point conversion to Marvin Harrison incredibly tied the game at 21-all with 4 minutes left in the third, but it wouldn’t last long. Patriots returner Ellis Hobbs brought back the kickoff 80 yards, and Brady would find Gaffney — on a force-out play, the likes of which have been removed from the game — in the back of the end zone for a 28-21 Patriots lead.

Manning responded with a 67-yard drive, and luck now would shift with the tide toward the Colts. Dominic Rhodes was stripped by surprise Patriots starter Eric Alexander at the New England 1. But this time, it was a Colts blocker who would find himself in the end zone with the ball in his hands. Center Jeff Saturday’s only NFL touchdown tied the game in what everyone knew was brewing as an instant-classic game.

“It’s a 60-minute game, not a 30-minute game, and we just didn’t play well enough those last 30,” Koppen said. “Simple as that.”

Brady and Manning would swap three-and-outs, and then field goals, making it 31-31, but the Patriots tacked on another three to make it 34-31. Manning was stopped cold on three straight incompletions, and Brown’s punt return had the Patriots in business at their own 40 with 3:22 left. They were 8-0 in playoff games decided by seven points or fewer at this point, then an NFL record — the best closers in the game.

But they made an uncharacteristic mistake (12 men in the huddle) after the punt, one of their most trusted options in Faulk was out of the game with a hamstring injury, and Sanders dove to break up Brady’s 3rd-and-4 pass to Brown in what could have been a disastrous pick-6 had Sanders been there a split second sooner.

“Just a stupid mental error on the penalty,” Koppen said. “When you look at it, that five yards was huge. That was the big one people might forget. But we didn’t forget it.”

The Patriots would have to punt to Manning on what would be his career-defining drive. Fail to tie or take the lead and he might forever have been branded a playoff loser. But take the Colts down the field against Belichick’s Patriots, and he could end that narrative.

“This could be the drive that changes so many things for Peyton Manning,” CBS’ Jim Nantz said prior to the start of the drive.

A funny thing happened on what would be his career-defining drive. Manning threw a pass to No. 2 tight end Bryan Fletcher. Fletcher — he of the 54 career receptions — dropped the catchable pass. And then Manning, pressured and throwing while falling away, went back to the little-used option on the next play. For a massive gain. The story of what happened between the downs is tremendous.

That set up the Colts at the New England 37 with the two-minute warning and a timeout at their disposal. They were in great shape. Manning went back to Wayne, and he broke toward the red zone. But then …

Wayne’s fumble happened with four Patriots defenders in the area — Tedy Bruschi, James Sanders and Rashad Baker, plus Chad Scott, who made the hit. Remember, Rodney Harrison wasn’t playing in this one, and he had made a career of taking the ball away from the Colts. True, the roughing-the-passer penalty against Tully Banta-Cain would have kept the ball with the Colts, but it would have been a field-position difference of 11 yards.

So with Manning on the doorstep, what did the Colts do? They ran it — three straight times to the rookie Addai. The idea, incredibly, came from Marvin Harrison, whom Manning said “wanted to throw the ball every play” typically. On the third try, Addai blasted in, led by Saturday’s big block on Vince Wilfork, to cap the 80-yard drive and the Colts’ 32nd points of the half.

Or did the Patriots let Addai score? After all, they had two timeouts and 1:00 left for the best clutch QB in the game to go try to win it. Brady drilled a 19-yard throw to Watson and hit Heath Evans for 15 more to the Indianapolis 44. Here we go again, right?

Manning sat on the Colts’ bench head down. “I don’t even think Peyton is going to watch,” Nantz said. It was more than just a quiet moment of reflection for the quarterback who had fallen short of his championship dreams for four years in college and through his nine NFL seasons to that point.

His prayers would be answered. With Freeney bearing down on Brady, his pass was forced into a bracketed Watson and Jackson picked it to seal the game. Cruelly, there was Evans wide open in the flat for what could have been a first down, and he might even have gotten out of bounds.

“How fitting is it that an offensive team for a decade, with an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl, the defense that had been much-maligned … we knew we couldn’t hide that side of the ball. We had to face the best and stop the best,” McFarland said. “And we did.”

With that play, everything had changed at that moment. Manning would go on to win his first Super Bowl, and Brady failed to come through in a massive situation with the game on the line for the first time. Brown called it “probably the toughest loss I ever had to deal with. That was pretty much my last game in the NFL, and going out like that was no fun at all.”

Of course, as Brady continues on to pursue more greatness, playing some of his best career football as he approaches 40 — while Manning is retired and the Colts are wallowing in mediocrity today — it’s not as if this game had much long-lasting impact on Brady’s reputation as one of the best ever to play the game. But without this win, Manning forever would play second fiddle. Frankly, he needed this game to slay that demon. And would Dungy have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame without this win and the Super Bowl victory two weeks later? That’s highly debatable.

And to this day this game holds up as an all-time thriller, having stood the test of time. Has it really been 10 years?

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!