The Indianapolis Colts will travel to New England to take on the Patriots this Sunday in the AFC Championship game (6:40 p.m. ET on CBS) with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl. It will be the third straight season in which the Patriots made the AFC title game, but for the Colts it will be their first trip since the 2009 season (for more on that game, read this).
The Colts and Patriots have actually met twice before in the AFC Championship game, with this upcoming matchup being the third such game in the conference title game between the teams. The Patriots won in New England in the playoffs following the 2003 season, defeating the Colts 24-14. A few years later, the two teams would again meet in the AFC Championship game, with this particular game being in Indianapolis.
Could this be the year the Colts finally got past the Patriots, who had recently won three Super Bowl rings and had made the rivalry completely one-sided until the year before? Could this really be the year? The Colts weren't expected to do much in the playoffs that season after having a terrible run defense in the regular season, but impressive wins over the Kansas City Chiefs at home and the Baltimore Ravens on the road, coupled with the Patriots upsetting the San Diego Chargers on the road in the Divisional Round, led to the game being in Indianapolis, between arguably the best two quarterbacks in the NFL on a big stage as the Colts looked to finally get past the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
And then, before long, the Colts trailed 21-3 in the second quarter. The RCA Dome was deflated and Colts fans were shocked. Head coach Tony Dungy maintained his calm demeanor, however, and the Colts put a field goal on the board shortly before the end of the first half to make it 21-6 at the break.
In the third quarter, Peyton Manning and the Colts finished the remainder of the 18-point rally, as Manning rushed for a one-yard score and as Manning hit Dan Klecko for a one-yard score. A two-point conversion pass to Marvin Harrison tied the game at 21 in the third quarter, with the Colts having come back from an eighteen-point deficit to tie the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. It wouldn't be the last time they would comeback in the game, however, as Tom Brady soon hit Jabar Gaffney for a six-yard touchdown to once again put the Patriots up, 28-21.
That remained the score entering the fourth quarter, but before long the Colts were nearing the end zone looking to again tie the game up. Peyton Manning handed the ball to Dominic Rhodes but he fumbled. "He fumbled the freaking football," radio announcer Bob Lamey said. Somehow, though, the ball made it's way to the end zone, where center Jeff Saturday recovered it for a touchdown. Jeff Saturday scoring a touchdown? Believe it or not, he wasn't the first offensive lineman to score that game, either, as the Patriots' Logan Mankins also recovered a fumble in the end zone in the first quarter.
Patriots kicker Steven Gostowski and the man he replaced in New England, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, then traded field goals before Gostowski then hit his second of the day to put the Patriots up 34-31 with just a few minutes left to play. Did Peyton Manning and the offensive have one more comeback in them?
Manning calmly led the Colts downfield on a drive that included a big pass play to Bryan Fletcher and a play in which Reggie Wayne fumbled the ball up in the air momentarily before coming down with it again. Before long, the Colts were threatening, and they decided to run the football. And with just about a minute remaining in the football game, Joseph Addai took it in from a couple of yards out for the go-ahead score, putting the Colts ahead 38-34. The Colts were one minute away from advancing to the Super Bowl!
But Tom Brady stood on the other sideline, and he had a knack for leading clutch drives (though this one couldn't end in a field goal like some others in the Super Bowls). Colts fans knew it wasn't over yet. Their defense needed to make one more stop. And as Brady and the Patriots neared midfield trying to mount a drive, the Colts' defense got the stop it needed.
"Brady out of the shotgun again, this crowd roaring," radio announcer Bob Lamey said. "Takes the snap. Steps up. Steps up. Throws one over the -- INTERCEPTED! Marlin Jackson! Marlin's got it! We're going to the Super Bowl! We're going to the Super Bowl!"
It was over. As Marlin Jackson was mobbed by his teammates after intercepting Tom Brady, the Colts were advancing to the Super Bowl for the first time in the Peyton Manning Era, doing so in dramatic fashion by mounting an 18-point comeback and winning the AFC Championship in thrilling fashion, beating their nemesis the Patriots 38-34.
The Colts would go on to defeat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI two weeks later 29-17 to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Indianapolis, but it is the AFC title game that really lives on in the minds of Colts fans. And if you ask me, it's not even close: that was the greatest game in Indianapolis Colts history.