Ten years ago tonight, the greatest and most significant game in the history of the Indianapolis Colts franchise took place. Ten years ago tonight, the Colts got past their biggest rival. Ten years ago tonight, the Colts finally made the Super Bowl.
To understand the full significance of the game you have to go well beyond that one night in January in the RCA Dome. You have to understand the struggles of the team in Indianapolis, and the sliver of hope the 1995 AFC Championship gave fans who had become accustomed to bad football. You have to understand the brilliance of Peyton Manning, the quarterback who arrived in 1998 and took the city and the NFL by storm, setting records and winning MVPs. You have to understand the six years of disappointing playoff defeats in the Manning era, none more painful than the divisional round exit a year before at the hands of the Steelers. And you have to understand their rivalry with the Patriots, who had knocked the Colts out of the playoffs in two of the previous three years and who had won the Super Bowl in three of the previous five.
All of that added to the pressure of the game on January 21, 2007, as the Colts hosted their first AFC Championship game since moving to Indianapolis. Nobody had expected them to be there after seeing their defense collapse in the regular season, but here they were. The defense, which had been unreliable all year, had turned things around completely in the playoffs, leading the Colts to wins over the Chiefs and Ravens in the previous two weeks. The Patriots, meanwhile, had defeated the Jets and the top-seeded Chargers to advance, setting up the second of four title game matchups between Manning and Brady, the two best quarterbacks of their generation and two of the best of all-time.
If midway through the second quarter you had told those watching that this would turn into one of the all-time great games, however, you’d probably have been laughed at. After an Asante Samuel pick-six, the Colts trailed 21-3 at home. It looked like the Patriots were on their way to another Super Bowl, but Indy added a field goal right before the end of the half. 21-6. After the break, the Colts went on a 14-play drive that culminated in Manning sneaking it in for a one-yard score. 21-13. The Patriots went three-and-out, and the Colts then answered with a six-play drive that was capped with a one-yard touchdown pass from Manning to defensive lineman Dan Klecko, which along with a two-point conversion pass to Marvin Harrison tied it up. 21-21. On the first two drives of the second half, the Colts had racked up 129 yards and two touchdowns.
Tom Brady struck back with a touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney, thanks to the force-out rule. The Patriots’ regained the lead, 28-21, entering the fourth quarter. That lead wouldn’t last long, however, as a fourth-straight Colts drive ended in points. This score was much stranger than the others, as Dominic Rhodes fumbled the freakin’ football but Jeff
Friday Saturday recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. 28-28, tied up once again. The teams traded field goals after that, as Steven Gostkowski put the Patriots up 31-28, Adam Vinatieri tied it up at 31, and then Gostkowski once again gave the Patriots the lead, 34-31 with just a couple of minutes left.
Peyton Manning and the Colts got the ball back at their own 20 yard line, facing the length of the field in the final minutes of the AFC Championship game against their biggest rival, down three points, with the Super Bowl on the line. An eleven yard completion to Reggie Wayne got things started. The next play was an incompletion to Bryan Fletcher, but Manning went right back to him. He rolled to his left and then launched a pass downfield, where Fletcher had gotten past the defense for a gain of 32. Then Manning hit Reggie for a 14 yard gain across the middle, and on the play the ball popped up out of Reggie’s hands for what seemed like forever before he grabbed it right back. A roughing the passer penalty added on to the yardage, and the Colts were suddenly on the doorstep. That’s where Marvin Harrison famously suggested to run the football. So the Colts ran it - three straight times. Joseph Addai for five yards. Addai for three yards. And then, on 3rd down and 2, Addai broke through: sprung by a great block from Jeff Saturday, a hole opened up right through the middle of the line and the Colts led for the first time all game with just one minute remaining.
It’s hard to describe the emotion felt in the RCA Dome, in Indianapolis, and in the homes of Colts fans everywhere at that moment. There was the stadium erupting as Addai found the end zone. There was Manning turning and sprinting down the field pumping his fist in the air. There was Addai, running to the wall where he was mobbed by teammates. The Colts led 38-34, at home, with only one minute separating them from the Super Bowl.
The game wasn’t over yet, however, because the Patriots still had two timeouts, a minute to work with, and most importantly, Tom Brady. In just three plays the Patriots were in Colts territory with 24 seconds left and a timeout remaining. On the very next play, however, Marlin Jackson clinched it with perhaps the biggest play in Colts history. He stepped in front of Brady’s pass and, well, I’ll let the words of Bob Lamey handle it:
Brady out of the shotgun again, this crowd roaring. Takes the snap, steps up, steps up, throws over the middle INTERCEPTED!! MARLIN JACKSON! MARLIN’S GOT IT! WE’RE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL! WE’RE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL!
The Colts, finally, were going to the Super Bowl. Behind an 18-point comeback and 32 second half points, the Colts had finally gotten past the Patriots and gotten to the Super Bowl. It’s hard to describe how much the win meant to the franchise, the city, and the fans.
"The first thing that comes to mind is when we were trying to get back to Peyton's condo, and people were running through the streets of Indianapolis," Archie Manning recalled last year to the LA Times. "Running. Through. The streets. I couldn't get over it. I was in a police car and we couldn't move. He said, 'I don't know how we're going to get through this.' I said, 'Don't worry about it. Let's just watch it.'"
The Colts, of course, went on to beat the Chicago Bears the following week in Super Bowl XLI, finally hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. But ask anyone who remembers that game - whether it’s a player from that team or a Colts fan or an objective observer - and everyone realizes the obvious: it was the greatest game of Manning’s career and the greatest game in franchise history.
The Colts were finally going to the Super Bowl.