Manning shakes label of not being able to win big one

INDIANAPOLIS -- It is the situation in which every quarterback, but especially Peyton Manning, has envisioned himself hundreds of times.

A Super Bowl berth on the line. Slightly over two minutes remaining in the game. Eighty yards to the opposite end zone. And a lot of adverse history, and haunting questions about the inability to win The Big One, permeating the moment.

So how did Manning begin the game-winning drive in the Colts' improbable 38-34 win over the New England Patriots here on Sunday night?

By seeking help from above.

"I said a little prayer there on that last drive," Manning acknowledged of a possession that culminated in the winning 3-yard touchdown run by rookie tailback Joseph Addai with just one minute remaining. "I don't know if you're supposed to pray or not in those kinds of situations, but I did."

Prayer answered, right? Well, kind of.

Divine intervention manifests itself in many ways. On the do-or-die drive, in an instant-classic AFC Championship Game that featured two touchdowns by offensive linemen on fumble recoveries and a touchdown catch by a defensive tackle, it came for Manning and the Colts from an unlikely source in backup tight end Bryan Fletcher.

A two-year veteran who had just 18 catches during the regular season and only one in the Colts' first two playoff games, Fletcher suggested to Manning that he could shake open on a corner route. Fletcher noticed that the Patriots secondary was concentrating so much manpower on wide receiver Reggie Wayne, and playing only a single safety high, that all he had to do was beat linebacker Eric Alexander.

On second-and-10 from the Indianapolis 31-yard line, Fletcher got a clean release off the line, free safety Artrell Hawkins moved out to cover Wayne, and Alexander got caught cheating too far upfield. The result: A 32-yard completion on the corner route to the New England 37-yard line. Four plays later, with Manning trying to bleed as much time off the clock as he could, Addai bolted untouched over the right side on his third straight carry to score the winner.

The touchdown culminated an incredible comeback from a first-half 18-point deficit. It sent the Colts into their first Super Bowl since the franchise relocated here from Baltimore in 1984. And it finally removed from Manning the stigma that he could not win such games.

Or at least offered a two-week reprieve, until the Colts face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, from such rhetoric.

Asked if the comeback provided him a sense of validation, Manning shook his head.

"I don't get into that stuff," Manning said. "I don't play that card. I really don't."

But from the manner in which his teammates and coaches gushed about him, and the graciousness afforded him by stunned Patriots veterans, it's as if players from both sidelines were happy to see Manning dodge his critics.

Said coach Tony Dungy: "Great pride by Peyton ... and, at the end, just so fitting."

Arguably the greatest passer of his generation, Manning completed 27 of 47 passes for 349 yards, his one major faux pass an outside hook on which New England cornerback Asante Samuel jumped the route and returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown.

At that juncture, with Indianapolis trailing 21-3 and 9:25 remaining in the first half, no one of sane mind could have predicted that the Colts were about to embark on the greatest comeback in AFC title game history. They scored on six of their next nine possessions, drives that averaged nine snaps per drive and wore down the New England defense.

Indianapolis finished with huge advantages in first downs (32-17), yards (455-319) and snaps (80-59). None of it would have meant anything, though, if Manning and the Colts had come up short on the final drive. The comeback certainly catapults Indianapolis into the Super Bowl on a wave of confidence.

"This is about the highest high right now, but there's still one more high to come," said center Jeff Saturday, who delivered a stirring speech the night before the game, in which he told his teammates that their time had come. "But this one, coming the way it did, you couldn't have written a better ending, really. I'm happy for Peyton. To have him do it like this, yeah, it makes it doubly satisfying."

The satisfaction won't last long, however, for the Colts. Despite a jubilant locker room, the prevailing theme among the Colts was that their business isn't finished yet. This is a team that reflects Dungy's businesslike approach and, while Indianapolis will savor the biggest moment in recent franchise history, the Manning-led comeback will be only a memory if the Colts don't come back strong against the Bears in two weeks.

Super Bowl XLI will have plenty of significance for Dungy, since he and Bears coach Lovie Smith, his close friend, will be the first African-American coaches to take their teams to a championship game. But there's a ton of significance as well for Manning, who some have suggested might be the Dan Marino of his era, a guy who retired with all the passing records but no Super Bowl ring.

Now he'll have an opportunity to dispel that possibility.

"I'm not making any predictions," said Fletcher. "But if you'd have seen that huddle on the last drive -- no panic, no doubt we were going to score, everyone focused on Peyton -- you'd know the kind of confidence we have. And the kind of confidence that we'll carry forward into the Super Bowl."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.