More Comeback Magic for Manning
Then in Sunday's 30-17 victory over the stubborn New York Jets in the AFC championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium, the NFL's MVP used just over one half of football to mount one of the most gratifying come-from-behind efforts of his career.
How did Manning and his Super Bowl XLIV-bound Colts find the hot hand that failed the offense in the first quarter and led to a 17-6 Jets advantage late in the first half?
The NFL's most adept player (or is it player-coach?) all but took over the play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tom Moore and receivers coach Clyde Christensen in the final two quarters.
After finally seizing momentum with a quick-strike scoring drive with 1:13 remaining in the second quarter – a game-changing series that saw Austin Collie snare passes of 18 and 46 yards that set up a 16-yard touchdown catch by the rookie receiver, Manning felt he has finally broken the Jets' defensive code.
"That [46-yard] play down the field to Collie, just before the touchdown, is the play, I think, that really got us going," said Manning, who went on to complete 26 of 39 passes for 377 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 123.6. "It sort of broke us open. And then we went back to him on the same play."
Manning put his trust in his younger receivers -- Collie (seven catches, 123 yards) and second-year deep threat Pierre Garcon, who caught 11 balls for 151 yards, both career highs, including a 4-yard touchdown pass with 8:03 left in the third quarter that pushed Indianapolis ahead for good.
Starting with Collie's touchdown, the Colts scored 24 unanswered points and the upstart, loud-talking Jets had been subdued. Manning, meanwhile, was on his way to his NFL-record seventh 300-plus-yard postseason game, surpassing Joe Montana and Kurt Warner (six each).
It was that carpe diem touchdown drive before the half that set the comeback into motion, Manning said.
"From that point on, we really had a good bead on things. We were aggressive the first series of the second half. I was changing every play. Tom was calling some run plays. I just kind of got hot," Manning said with a grin, "and changed it.
"And Tom, as he does, said 'Hey, you're hot -- let's just keep it going.' And he has ego when it comes to that. I just saw some things, was able to expose some things. And those were two huge drives."
The sequence reminded Manning of the 2006 AFC title game against the New England Patriots, when the Colts rallied from a record 18-point deficit to win 38-34 and went on to capture the Super Bowl XLI title over the Chicago Bears in -- oh, sweet coincidence -- South Florida.
He performed similar second-half magic in that game, finishing with 349 passing yards and leading Indianapolis to a winning-80-yard scoring drive, despite an injured thumb, capped by Joseph Addai's touchdown run with one minute remaining.
"It wasn't a great start, and we were kind of feeling them out, trying to get some rhythm," Manning said of the similarities between the two title games.
There were no major adjustments at halftime to defeat the Jets' top-ranked pass defense, said Colts coach Jim Caldwell, who becomes the fifth first-year head coach to reach a Super Bowl. "Nothing out of the ordinary," Caldwell said.
Manning was searching for rhythm. Coming out of the two-minute warning before halftime, he sensed the Jets were about to blitz, and he took full advantage by exploiting the lack of coverage on his open receivers.
"So we went to a max protection and took our shots," Manning said.
Veteran receiver Reggie Wayne found himself matched up repeatedly with All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, and he schooled the Jets' defensive star in the second quarter on one impressive reception, Wayne caught a ball underneath the linebacker coverage, juked his way past Revis 10 yards downfield for what became a 25-yard reception, and the Jets' stranglehold on the Colts' passing game loosened.
Wayne's ability to tie up the NFL's best defensive back helped Manning employ an effective three-receiver set in the second half that ultimately crushed the Jets.
"Yeah, I saw what they were doing. They went to three wides," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "You have tight end Dallas Clark as your tight end, so that's basically four receivers out there."
Manning wouldn't disagree. "[The Jets] treat Dallas like a receiver. They went nickel. I tried to figure it out, because against San Diego, they went two tight ends [with Antonio Gates and Kris Wilson] and Gates is kind of like Clark," he said. "They played a 3-4 [front] against San Diego. But against us, they go nickel. So I was looking at Dallas and saying, 'Dallas, I think that means that you're a good receiver, but not a very good blocker."
Big mistake. Clark used his physical skills to open up lanes for Garcon and Collie.
There was speculation that Manning cranked up the passing in the second half when Jets nickel cornerback Donald Strickland left the game with a groin injury.
"We didn't even notice that Strickland was out," said Manning, disputing that theory.
It's no surprise that the NFL's only four-time MVP devoured hours of film on the Jets the week leading up to Sunday's contest before a Colts-franchise record crowd 67,650. He studied the 2005 Colts-Ravens game in particular, and picked apart subtleties from that Ryan-coached defense to give him an edge in this matchup.
Now the Colts are headed to their second Super Bowl in the last four seasons, thanks to more Manning comeback mastery. He said the significance of a return trip to Miami is not lost on him.
"Obviously, it was the first Super Bowl for this city, for the Indianapolis Colts, and we're glad to have the opportunity to be going back," he said.
For now, Manning admitted he needs a breather. He said he would take one. Sunday night. That's it. Then it's right back to work.
"I'm really glad we have two weeks to get ready -- I don't know how they've ever played this thing a week after the championships," Manning said. "I'm mentally tired, because of what we went through preparation-wise for these guys.
"I need tonight, really, to get over this one, and get ready for who we're playing."