In the end, even destiny couldn’t beat Peyton Manning.
The Indianapolis Colts’ future Hall of Fame quarterback ultimately proved once again that he is indeed that dominant, and that this year, “MVP” might as well stand for “Most Valuable, Peyton.”
Through four straight wins and nearly half of what looked to be a fifth, the New York J-E-T-S had lived off of F-A-T-E, and appeared destined to become the second New York franchise in three seasons to make an improbable journey from an unheralded five seed to the Super Bowl.
Instead, Manning did exactly what you’d expect from the player who won an unprecedented fourth NFL MVP award this season –- make a good defense look bad.
As a result, Manning and the Colts (16-2) return to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years, while the Jets’ magical ride is D-O-N-E.
Facing a surprising 17-6 deficit with 2:11 left in the first half of Sunday’s AFC championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Manning took over, rallying the Colts’ offense for the game’s final 24 points, in a 30-17 comeback win.
Four weeks prior, same setting, same opponent, Manning stood on the sideline, leaving his helmet on, annoyed that team president Bill Polian wouldn’t allow Manning or the Colts (then 14-0) to protect a 15-10 lead against the Jets (11-8) and try for a perfect season.
Manning certainly wasn’t being pulled this time.
And, with rapid-fire efficiency, the Colts’ signal caller carved up a vaunted Jets defense which not only came in as the top-ranked defensive unit in the league both overall and against the pass, but which had allowed a total of just 75 points, for a 9.375 points per game average, over its previous eight games.
It was no problem for Manning, not even when forced to rely upon a largely inexperienced receiving core.
After a 48-yard field goal by Jets’ kicker Jay Feely capped New York’s 17-point second quarter and had Jet fans everywhere dreaming of a super ending to Gang Green’s fairy-tale ride, Manning swiftly dashed the hopes of the Jets’ faithful.
The Colts responded in a mere 58 seconds, going 80 yards in just four plays, with Manning sending rookie wide receiver Austin Collie (7 catches, 123 yards, 1 TD) on his way to his first-ever 100-yard receiving day.
Manning hit Collie for 18 yards to the left, and then went right back to him for 46 yards over the middle. It was the turning point of the game, and Manning and the Colts knew it.
“That play down the field to Collie before the touchdown is the play that I think really got us going,” Manning said. “From that point on, we really had a good bead on things.”
The next play, Manning found Collie again, in the back of the end zone for a leaping 16-yard touchdown catch, with 1:13 left in the first half.
Though the Jets still took a 17-13 lead into the locker room, it was as if the Colts had already taken control of the game.
“You think about 17-6, we thought we were in a good position at that point,” Jets safety Kerry Rhodes said. “But… they got the drive right before half, and after that it was downhill from there.”
The quick jaunt downfield was nothing new for Manning and the Colts. In Week 2, while possessing the ball for just 14:53 (the least amount of time by a winning team since 1977), the Colts won 27-23, scoring all 27 points on offense, in ironically, Miami — the site of Super Bowl XLIV in two weeks, on the same field in which Manning got his only Super Bowl win, three years ago.
The next key moment which sealed the Jets’ fate came early in the third quarter, when Gang Green had a good chance to regain momentum.
New York took the opening kickoff of the second half 39 yards before stalling at the Colts’ 34 yard-line.
On 4th-and-7, it was a typical ‘too short to punt, yet too long to try a field goal’ scenario.
A perfect time for the brash, big-talking Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan to back up his bravado with some guts and call a play that would have fit his over-confident and over-the-top attitude which fueled the Jets’ playoff run.
To that point, the Jets, normally relying on solid defense and a strong rushing game, were enjoying surprising success with their passing game, with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez (17-30, 257 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) completing most of the big throws he had to make.
It would have been a great time to go for the first down and keep the drive going. Even a fake field goal or fake punt might have been a better choice than trying a long field goal, especially since Ryan had already gone into his bag of tricks in the second quarter, with former Missouri quarterback-turned-multi-purpose option Brad Smith completing his only pass of the season, a 45-yard play that set up the Jets’ second touchdown of the game.
Although Ryan didn’t go ultra-conservative and punt, he also didn’t exude the persona of his coaching style or of his team by settling for a long 52-yard field goal that sailed harmlessly wide right off the foot of Feely.
The missed kick gave Manning great field position at the Colts’ 42 yard-line, and again, Manning went to work fast.
The next eight plays were all Manning passes, six of them completions, on a drive that took 3:31 and which ended on a 4-yard touchdown pass to second-year receiver Pierre Garcon (game highs of 11 receptions and 151 yards), who did a nice job to keep his feet inbounds in the end zone, along the right sideline, to put Indianapolis ahead for good, 20-17, with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter.
After the game, Garcon, for the second straight week, raised the Haitian national flag in honor of his relatives in earthquake-ravage Haiti.
For all of the pre-game talk of the Jets’ rookies (Ryan, Sanchez, and running back Shonn Greene), it was the Colts’ youngsters who helped Manning and Indianapolis win the AFC crown.
“They made some huge plays for us today,” Manning said of Collie and Garcon, who became Manning’s primary targets with Jets’ shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis keeping Colts’ leading wide receiver Reggie Wayne (3 catches, 55 yards) in check.
Jets’ nickel back Donald Strickland going down with a groin injury in the first quarter also helped open up some opportunities for the Colts’ passing game.
Meanwhile, Greene (10 carries, 41 yards), whose prolific rushing helped carry the Jets to its two postseason wins to reach Indianapolis, was limited in part, by a rib injury he suffered in the third quarter. He would leave the game, but would later return.
However, the Colts’ defense was stopping the Jets on the ground, anyway. A Jets’ rushing game which led the NFL with 172 yards per game in the regular season, remained consistent in the playoffs with 171 rushing yards in Cincinnati and 169 more in San Diego. On Sunday though, it was the Colts (ranked last in the league in rushing) who actually outrushed the Jets, 101-86, as the Indianapolis defense shut New York out in the second half.
That was all of the defensive help that the Colts’ offense needed, as Manning closed things out, leading Indianapolis on consecutive scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
Manning (26-39, 377 yards, 3 TD, 0 turnovers), who recorded an NFL postseason record seventh 300-yard passing game, took the Colts 51 yards in 3:33, putting Indianapolis ahead, 27-17, on a 15-yard scoring toss to tight end Dallas Clark, with 8:52 left in the game.
“There’s a reason why he’s the MVP of the league,” Ryan said of Manning. “He’s that good, and you’ve got to be on top of your game to beat him… if you can’t disrupt his rhythm he’s gonna kill ya, and we couldn’t disrupt it enough.”
The Colts iced the game on a 12-play drive that resulted in the third field goal of the game by Matt Stover, who will turn 42 on January 27th and will become the oldest player ever to play in the Super Bowl.
It was the second time in as many AFC championship games hosted by the Colts in Indianapolis, that Manning rallied his team from a double digit deficit to win. The Colts also trailed New England in the old RCA Dome in Indianapolis, 21-3, in the second quarter, before beating the Patriots, 38-34, in the 2006 AFC Championship game, en route to Manning’s only other Super Bowl appearance.
The Jets’ first road loss in six games provided some perspective on just how difficult and unlikely the 2007 Giants’ run to a Super Bowl title was. The Giants won 11 straight games away from home that season, and the end of their regular season as well as the beginning of their playoff run that year mirrored what the Jets had accomplished prior to Gang Green falling to the Colts on Sunday.
While Manning and the Colts choose to do all of their talking on the field, the loss seemed to humble the usually outspoken Ryan, who declared his Jets Super Bowl favorites before the playoffs.
“Today wasn’t our day,” he said. “There’s no question. You have to give credit to the Colts. Obviously they’re the cream of the crop right now.”
Adding more to the thoughts of what might have been for Jets fans, this year’s Super Bowl was originally scheduled to be hosted by the Jets, but plans for New York City’s proposed West Side Stadium fell through years ago, after the city, state, and the Jets could not agree on funding. The game was then awarded to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, and the Jets will instead open play in the new Meadowlands stadium next year.
However, Jet fans should feel encouraged knowing that their team no longer appears to be the “same old Jets” as many have often described the franchise. With a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback, realistic expectations should have included nothing more than a playoff berth this year.
To be just 32 minutes away, after seemingly being “Jets-tined” to reach the Super Bowl certainly hurts, but to be so close was really just a bonus for this season. With a very solid foundation in Ryan, Sanchez, Greene, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (who turned down a head coaching opportunity in Buffalo), and one of the league’s best defenses, the Jets figure to remain Super Bowl contenders for several years to come.
“Everybody’s disappointed that we didn’t go to the Super Bowl, especially when we were this close,” Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson said. “We didn’t do everything that we needed to win. But, at the same rate, we did do a lot of great things [this season].”
Strong safety Jim Leonhard added, “Maybe this football team needed to get here and have this experience in order to take the next step.”
Indianapolis meanwhile, will face the New Orleans Saints (15-3, after starting 13-0), on February 7th, in a matchup that will feature two number one seeds in the Super Bowl for the first time in 17 years (when Dallas beat Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVII).
On a couple of different levels, the game will bring things full circle for Manning and the Colts, who will be making their fourth trip to football’s ultimate game, while seeking their third Super Bowl victory.
The Colts’ three previous visits to the Super Bowl were all in Miami, where the Baltimore Colts won Super Bowl V, and the Indianapolis Colts won Super Bowl XLI (in which Manning was named the game’s MVP).
The Saints are marching into the Super Bowl for the first time in their 43 seasons, after capturing the NFC title with a thrilling 31-28 overtime victory over Minnesota on Sunday, four-and-a-half years after the city of New Orleans (Manning’s birthplace) was decimated by Hurricane Katrina.