Next Up, Indianapolis... Again

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will get a chance to exorcise his demons this week after the Patriots overcame a sluggish performance from Tom Brady and upset the AFC top-seeded San Diego Chargers to earn a trip to Indianapolis for the AFC Championship Game.

Manning and the Colts lost the 2003 conference title game and a 2004 divisional round game to the Patriots in Foxborough, but have since had their way with New England, winning at Gillette Stadium in each of the last two regular seasons by a 67-41 combined score. The last time New England visited the RCA Dome, it won, 38-34, after a final-second goal line stand back in 2003. But now Manning and the Colts will get a shot to slay their nemesis on their home turf with a Super Bowl berth in the balance. The Patriots did not play their best game in San Diego, but took advantage of several Charger mistakes to escape with a 24-21 win. They will need to play a much cleaner game in Indy to get past a Super Bowl-starved team that has played it best defensive football of the season in earning playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore while allowing a combined 14 points.

Safety Bob Sanders was a force for the Colts in the team's Nov. 5 win over the Pats and has given Indy's defense a playoff boost with his return from injury. The Patriots, who once seemed to own Manning, have also found slowing him much more difficult of late. In the first meeting of the season, Manning completed 20-of-36 for 326 yards and two touchdowns in out-dueling Brady, who threw four interceptions in the loss. Brady did not play well for most of Sunday's win over San Diego either, but overcame three interceptions to lead a late-game comeback win. New England is 5-0 all-time in AFC Championship Games and has won three of those five on the road - in Miami in 1985 and in Pittsburgh in 2001 and 2004. The Patriots will play for the conference title for the fourth time in six years. In their three Super Bowl runs this decade, the Patriots have ousted five No. 1 seeds and knocked off the reigning MVP five times, including this year defeating LaDainian Tomlinson's Chargers.


New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski kicks a third quarter field goal against the San Diego Chargers in their AFC Divisional playoff football game in San Diego, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson was miffed after the loss because some of the Patriots apparently celebrated their win at midfield while engaging in Shawne Merriman's "Light's Out" dance. Tomlinson called it classless and insinuated that such behavior starts with the head coach (Bill Belichick).

--K Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining in the game was his first career game-winning field goal. The rookie kicker replaced playoff legend Adam Vinatieri and after an up-and-down regular season, is 6-for-6 in the postseason including a Patriots playoff record 50-yarder. Ironically, the Pats will face Vinatieri's Colts in the championship game.

--QB Tom Brady struggled to a 57.6 passer rating while connecting for two touchdowns and tossing three interceptions, but he recovered in time to lead his 24th career comeback win in the fourth quarter or overtime. Brady is now an NFL all-time best 12-1 in the postseason.

--WR Troy Brown, 35, has been mum on his future, but the veteran two-way player may have saved New England's season when, following Brady's third interception with 6:16 left in the game, he forced a Marlon McCree fumble that former Charger Reche Caldwell recovered at the Charger 41 to extend a drive that ended in a 4-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Caldwell.

--WR Jabar Gaffney caught 11 passes during the regular season, but posted his second straight 100-yard playoff effort in the win over San Diego. He followed up an eight-catch, 104-yard performance against the Jets with 10 grabs for 103 yards against the Chargers.

--S Rodney Harrison missed his second straight game with a knee injury. The Patriots are hoping Harrison would be available if they reach the Super Bowl.

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