gdrv_sm.jpgBy Scott Benson

Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts exorcized every demon imaginable tonight when they rallied from a 21-3 first-half deficit to post 32 second-half points on a dog-tired New England Patriots defense and earn the first Super Bowl berth of Manning’s career.

The Colts 38-34 come-from-behind win set a record for AFC championship round comebacks and drove a dagger through the heart of every Patriot and every New England fan. The Colts, worthy adversaries now enjoying their well-earned moment, will now face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl 41. The Patriots leave not with their fourth Super Bowl appearance in six seasons, but with their first ever AFC Championship Game loss.

Indy’s one-minute, 80 yard drive with two minutes left – which ended when Joseph Addai fairly walked in the end zone on a barely-there Pats defense – gave the Colts their first lead of the game and put Tom Brady and the Patriots offense against the wall as they have never been before.

Marlon Jackson quickly intercepted Brady and ended the Patriots season. It had seemed for most of the day that the Patriots would continue their dalliance with the history books. In the end, Manning and the Colts authored a jarring, sickening new chapter – a blown New England lead, and a bitter, regrettable big game loss for the Patriots.

It’s all too much to take in at the moment. It was an incredible roller coaster ride from start to finish. I’m still shaking. Look, no fewer than TWO offensive linemen scored touchdowns today, A defensive lineman scored another. Against his former team. While playing offense. No ordinary game, this. Even if the Patriots had managed to pull this one out, it would have gone down as the weirdest goddam sixty minutes of their entire Super Bowl run.

Instead, it went beyond weird to just plain, stick-in-your-gut-forever awful.

The Patriots started with the strength of a champion, withstanding the adrenaline of what seemed like the entire city of Indianpolis to run out to an early lead. Even though the first drive ended with a strange mishandling of a handoff that ended up under Logan Mankins in the end zone, the Patriots were moving the ball on the allegedly-resurgent Colts defense while keeping Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne at bay. The first quarter ended with a 7-3 Patriots lead, which quickly grew to 11 points thanks to another New England drive that ate up nearly six minutes and put an untouched Corey Dillon in the end zone. The Patriots had taken Indy and their crowd out of the game and were clearly in control. Visions of another Super Bowl danced in our heads.

The visions were downright boogeying when Asante Samuel jumped on a Manning to Harrison out and raced 39 yards for a touchdown with the interception. The Pats front seven was harrassing Manning like old times. The Patriots defensive backs, including Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders, each had taken turns making circus break-ups of near scoring passes. With the Samuel touchdown, the Patriots led 21-3 and the Colts hung their heads in that oh-so-familar manner.

That was as good as it was going to get for the Patriots. Not even Stephen Gostkowski’s 43 yard field goal that put them up three with 3:53 left (by the way – CASE FREAKING CLOSED) could restore the same heady feeling that New England was headed for immortality.

It all started, it seems, when the Patriots cuffed up a golden chance to stretch their lead late in the second quarter. A Brady pass to Ben Watson gave New England a 1st and 10 at the Indy 21, and it seemed as though the Pats could head to the half with as much as a 25 point lead. But penalities to Troy Brown (which brought back the Watson first down) and Jabar Gaffney pushed them out of field goal range and forced a punt.

Todd Sauerbrun forced the Colts to their own 12, but the Patriots seemed to relax defensively, allowing Manning to find open receivers underneath for chain-moving gains. New England was clearly guarding against the quick strike, but the trade off was easy first downs for the Colts. It led them to inside the Patriots 10. Still, the gambit seemed to work when the Colts forced to settle for the field goal, and the Pats retained a two-score, 21-6 lead as they broke for the half.

Yet it didn’t feel as though the Patriots were in control anymore. The Colts offense, even after starting slowly, even after the debilitating Samuel interception, was moving again. The Patriots didn’t give up a big score, but they gave something away nonetheless.

It continued as the second half began. The Colts instantly drove 76 yards in a Patriot-like seven minutes, and it was suddenly a one-score game. At this point, it was all Colts, and horrifyingly, the 21-3 lead was a distant memory. Naturally, the Patriots offense was frozen by the wave of momentum, and the Colts had it again for another long drive and, quickly, the tying score. It was none other than Dan Klecko, lined up as a fullback, who completed the comeback, with an assist from Marvin Harrison on the subsequent two-pointer.

The roof of the RCA Dome was falling in on the Pats, but the Dancing Machine himself, Ellis Hobbs, created one of the brief moments of second-half solvency for the Pats with an 80 yard kickoff return that set New England up at the Colts 21. Bonus points for leaving Adam Vinatieri in the dust. Brady then hit Gaffney to bring it down inside the ten, and then the veteran pick up tight-roped along the back line to gather in a third-down touchdown pass before being forced out, a money catch that surged the Pats back over Indy by 7 as the third quarter came to a close. An Indy challenge couldn’t prove that Gaffney had ever gone out of bounds as he leapt for his crucial touchdown. Pats led 28-21.

The Colts were not deterred. Where the Patriots had in the first half put Manning under pressure, and blanketed his receivers, they had no answers now. In just two minutes Manning drove the Colts nearly 70 yards, and like Mankins before him, Jeff Saturday dropped on a Domenic Rhodes fumble in the Patriots end zone for the Indy touchdown. Eric Alexander, a surprise big-minutes guy today, forced the fumble, but no Pats could cover the ball and a golden opportunity was lost.

The teams then exchanged possessions, but the Patriots got a break when a Colts special teams facemask penalty (and a Troy Brown 16 yard return) set them up with 1st and 10 at the Colts 43. Brady worked with Gaffney and Caldwell to move it close enough for Gostkowski (from 28) to give them another lead. The Pats had the 31-28 lead with just seven minutes remaining.

Instead of shrinking from the moment, Manning made the big play. A 52 yard catch and run by Dallas Clark, down the vacant middle of the Patriots defense, set up a tying field goal from Vinatieri. What once seemed like the worst Pats blowout of the Colts ever was coming down to the final five minutes of the game.

The Patriots had something left, though they were working uphill as Manning exploited a tiring Pats defense. Once again it was Hobbs, the center of so much controversy last week, but now rising with his electricfying kickoff returns to perhaps propel the Patriots to the Super Bowl. His 41 yard return moved the ball near midfield, and a Brady strike to maybe-free agent Dan Graham got 29 yards and set Gostkowski up for what could have been a game winner. The rookie – also the center of way too much controversy since August – drained it, proving (along with his booming kickoffs all night) once and for all that Adam’s Money was, in fact, better spent elsewhere.

Yet Manning had the ball with nearly four minutes left, and the inevitable loomed, until the Patriots defense rose a final time (with a ferocious pass rush that hadn’t been seen since the first half) to pin the Colts deep and force a punt that Troy Brown took to the Pats 40 with 3:22 left. New England was about to escape with their life, if they could only earn a first down or two against an Indy defense that had yielded them no fewer than 27 points.

They could not. As they were at the end of the first half, the Patriots offense was put in a position to succeed. No such success was forthcoming. They started with a penalty and finished with a three and out, setting up a punt and the Colts game winning drive.

Manning can point to his final drive, when he drove the Colts 80 yards by hitting two big throws to Reggie Wayne, the next time someone tells him he can’t win the big one. All he needed was a field goal for the tie, but he got the touchdown for the win, even if a Patriots penalty put him in position. On the second throw to Wayne, Tully Banta Cain was flagged for a blow to the quarterback’s head (pretty marginal call for that situation, huh?), which backed up the Patriots to their own goal line and buried them. They could barely muster a reaction to Addai’s winning run. It’s over for Peyton now. He won The Big One today.

There will be alot of talk about Reche Caldwell dropping passes (two beauties, suggesting the free agent might have been in over his head tonight) and the Patriots turning away from the running game and Tom Brady’s inaccuracy/injury, and various other noodling, but make no mistake about it; the Pats lost tonight because they couldn’t stop Peyton Manning and the Colts offense. They haven’t stopped them in (now) the last three tries. Not even tonight, with a defense that set a franchise record for fewest points allowed. The Patriots lost bbecause they blew an eighteen-point lead, and they sure as hell didn’t blow it on offense.

For the Patriots, it’s a cruel end to what seemed to be another Cinderella season. Nobody had the Pats here today, not if they’re telling the truth. Yet they overcame the defections and the holdouts and the unsteady orientations and damn near got to the Super Bowl again. A heartbreaking loss – in a game they had in control, and should have won – should not completely overshadow what the Patriots have proven this season. They’re always in it. And they will be again. Remember that before you send me your gloating e-mail.

But it’s little solace to the proud New Englanders tonight. A punch in the stomach – in good part self-induced, if that’s possible – has ended their drive for four Super Bowl wins in six seasons. Now, it’s the Colts and Bears turn, and the once-again former champions are left, like everybody else, to start all over again.

As I close with heavy heart, I’d like to thank everybody who clicked on our link this season and offered e-mails of good thoughts and encouragement. A special thank you goes to the rest of the GDRV staff, namely Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan, Bruce Allen and Bill Barnwell, who made this our best season yet. It’s my fondest wish that they’ll all agree to be back here with me next fall for another season of (and we should remind ourselves of this, especially tonight) this golden era of New England Patriots football.

Programming Note: Join us later this week for our final GDRV Roundtable of 2006, as we close the books on the Pats campaign and get ready for another off-season. See you then.