Peyton Manning exorcised his football demons Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
The Indianapolis Colts quarterback pulled off the biggest comeback ever in a conference championship game by leading his team back from a 21-3 deficit to a wild, 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots.
What started out looking like another Manning collapse against Patriots coach Bill Belichick turned into a classic playoff duel between the top two quarterbacks in the NFL.
Manning produced 32 second-half points to win a back-and-forth battle with New England quarterback Tom Brady. The winning score was a 3-yard run by Joseph Addai with one minute left, which capped an 80-yard drive that started with 2:17 remaining.
The victory gave the Colts franchise its first Super Bowl berth since the 1970 season and its first since moving to Indianapolis in 1984.
Indianapolis (15-4) will play the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4 in Miami.
"To be sure, this was an instant classic," Manning said.
"I could not be more proud of our guys," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who joins the Bears' Lovie Smith as the first African-American head coaches to take their teams to the Super Bowl. "We had to do it the hard way. At halftime we talked about being just two scores down. If we could take the opening kickoff and score then we'd be just one score down. That's what we did."
The Colts found themselves in a 21-3 hole with 9:25 left in the second quarter when Asante Samuel picked off a Manning pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown.
Manning led the Colts to a field goal late in the second quarter then in the second half skewered a Patriots defense that had allowed just 14.8 points a game this year, second fewest in the league.
Manning completed 27 of 47 passes for 349 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
In seven second-half possessions, the Colts produced four touchdowns and a field goal. The TD drives went for 76, 76, 67 and 80 yards. The field-goal drive was 59 yards.
The Colts rolled up 455 yards, the most yards allowed by New England in 44 games, since the 2004 season.
Manning had been dogged by his 5-6 postseason record, despite winning two NFL Most Valuable Player awards and posting an 89-39 regular-season record. The Pats had knocked the Colts out of the playoffs two of the previous three years.
"I don't get into monkeys and vindication," Manning said. "I don't play that card. I know how hard I worked this season. It's always nice when you can take the hard work and come out with a win."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was brilliant in defeat. He hit 21 of 34 passes for 232 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Brady's last-gasp drive to try to win it was extinguished with an interception by Marlin Jackson at the Colts' 35 with 16 seconds left.
"You certainly don't envision getting down 21-3 to the Patriots in any game," Manning said. "That's not the hole you want to be in. Samuel made a good play on the interception. . . . But it was a methodical method we used to try to chip away at the lead."
On the final drive, Manning beat a five-man New England rush with a 32-yard pass to tight end Bryan Fletcher to the Patriots' 37. On the next play he hit Reggie Wayne for 14 yards, and a roughing the passer penalty on the Pats' Tully Banta-Cain added 12 more to the play to give the Colts the ball at the New England 11 with 1:53 left. On third and 2 from the 3, Addai ran through a big hole up the middle for the go-ahead score. It was the only time the Colts led in the game.
"We certainly wanted to score a touchdown, but we did not want to score too fast," Manning said. "You do not want to give Tom Brady too much time left on the clock."
Manning's favorite target was tight end Dallas Clark, who caught six passes for 137 yards. The Colts also enjoyed a good rushing day against the league's fifth-ranked run defense. Dominic Rhodes gained 69 yards, and Addai added 56.
The Patriots got 85 first-half rushing yards against the Colts' defense, ranked last in the league against the run. But New England ran only five times for 8 yards in the second half.
The Patriots' big halftime lead evaporated quickly in a fast and furious third quarter.
The Colts got themselves back in the game to start the second half by taking the kickoff and marching 76 yards in 14 plays to a touchdown. Manning plunged over from the 1 to pull the Colts within 21-13.
Now the Colts had the momentum, and after a three-and-out series by the Pats, Manning and the Colts offense roared downfield, 76 yards in six plays to another touchdown. The drive was capped by a 1-yard pass to ex-Patriot lineman Dan Klecko, who lined up as the fullback. Manning tied the game, 21-21, with a two-point conversion throw to Marvin Harrison.
As they so often do, the Patriots responded immediately. Ellis Hobbs returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards to the Colts' 21. Four plays later, Brady threw a 6-yard TD pass to Jabar Gaffney in the back of the end zone. Gaffney got only one foot down in bounds, but he was ruled knocked out of the end zone by contact and the TD stood after a replay challenge.
Back and forth they went.
The Colts answered with another long drive, 67 yards in seven plays. A great throw by Manning to Clark for 23 yards put the ball at the Pats' 9. Three plays later Rhodes ran 2 yards and fumbled at the goal line, but center Jeff Saturday recovered in the end zone. It was tied, 28-28, with 13:24 left.
The two teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter, with the second by Adam Vinatieri from 36 yards tying the game, 31-31. But Stephen Gostkowski hit from 43-yards to put the Patriots back in front with 3:49 left. The rest was up to Manning.
The largest comebacks in a NFL conference championship game:
18: Indianapolis vs. New England, Jan. 21, 2007, AFC championship (trailed 21-3, won 38-34)
13: Atlanta at Minnesota, Jan. 17, 1999, NFC championship (trailed 20-7, won 30-27, OT)
10: Denver vs. NY Jets, Jan. 17, 1999, AFC championship (trailed 10-0, won 23-10)
10: San Diego at Pittsburgh, Jan. 15, 1995, AFC championship (trailed 13-3, won 17-13)
-- Associated Press