In what was arguably the most unlikely of recent seasons for the Indianapolis Colts to win an AFC Championship and a ticket to the Super Bowl, that's exactly what they did on Sunday night with a nearly heart-stopping and memorable 38-34 win over the New England Patriots.
The team that fell short after quarterback Peyton Manning threw a record 49 touchdown passes in a recent season, and who continued to knock on the door with playoff appearances in seven of the last eight seasons will face the Chicago Bears in Miami for Super Bowl XLI. It's the team's first trip to the big game since 1971 when they were still in Baltimore and defeated the Cowboys in Super Bowl V, 16-13.
This was a season of doubt for the Colts on a number of fronts; at least for those outside of the team's headquarters. Some believed that a team that finished dead last in defending the run would never survive the playoffs. Others wondered if injuries would keep the Colts from making a trip to Miami with key starters like defensive tackles Corey Simon and Montae Reagor missing, safety Bob Sanders being limited to just four games during the regular season, and injuries to slot receiver Brandon Stokley and his replacement -- Ricky Proehl -- as well as a late-season injury to starting tight end Dallas Clark threatening to derail them.
|Colts WR Reggie Wayne grabs his bobbled pass in traffic in the fourth quarter (Doug Benc/Getty Images)|
Early in the game it appeared that the Ghosts of Patriots past had appeared as New England jumped out to a 21-3 lead. Since Ty Law was busy enjoying his offseason along with the rest of the Kansas City Chiefs, New England cornerback Asante Samuel filled-in as a capable understudy, intercepting Manning at the Indy 39 and returning it for a touchdown. But even though the Colts were trailing by 18 points with just under 10 minutes left in the first half, Indianapolis continued to display the "no panic" mode that has been a reflection of their head coach, Tony Dungy, for this 2006 team. And while they went in at the half down 21-6, you knew this game wasn't over.
The Colts put together a 14-play 76-yard drive on their first possession of the second half that closed the gap to eight after Manning ran a quarterback sneak past the goal line. Then they tied the game on their next possession with a play that really had to sting Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The Colts lined up with former Patriot Dan Klecko as a fullback, who has blocked for rookie Joseph Addai in some short-yardage situations this year. But Manning faked the handoff and found Klecko on the right side for his second touchdown catch of the year. With a successful 2-point conversion a play later, the game was dead even again at 21-21 with four minutes left in the third quarter.
An 80-yard kickoff return set the Patriots up for a controversial touchdown catch when Jabar Gaffney leapt to pull in a 6-yard touchdown catch at the back of the end zone. The officials ruled that he was pushed out of the field of play but would have landed in bounds, so the Patriots finished up the third quarter with a 7-point lead over Indy.
Based on New England's 2006 playoff performances prior to arriving at the RCA Dome, that situation should have spelled big trouble for the Colts. The Patriots had scored roughly 40 percent of their playoff points in the fourth quarter in the previous two playoff victories. But the Colts defense held them to just two field goals in the final 15 minutes.
|Colts QB Peyton Manning celebrates (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)|
But with a Super Bowl MVP quarterback like Tom Brady on the field, you just couldn't count the Patriots out. Despite initially moving the ball, New England's night and season ended when cornerback Marlin Jackson intercepted Brady's pass at the Indianapolis 35 to provide the Colts with their tickets to the Super Bowl.
You know, it'll be a long two weeks waiting for this classic matchup between the Bears and the Colts. But perhaps that's a good thing. I'm not so sure that the hearts of most Colts fans would be ready for another game by next Sunday.
Enjoy the moment, Colts fans. I was 12 years old when the Colts last played in a Super Bowl back in January of 1971 and I still remember it well at age 48. My youngest son is 14, and I hope that he won't have to wait 36 years between Super Bowl experiences like I did.
Breathe it all in over the next two weeks and savor every moment. Whether you've waited 36 years or perhaps a little more than 20 since the team moved to Indianapolis, be sure to gather as much as you can from these next two weeks.
It's truly a "super" time for Colts fans.