A comeback, a drive, a legacy. And yes — finally — Peyton Manning gets his Super Bowl trip, too.
Football's most prolific quarterback put on a show for the ages Sunday, rallying the Indianapolis Colts from 18 points down and driving them 80 yards for the winning score in a wildly entertaining 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots.
In his nine years in the league, Manning has never played in a game like this AFC championship contest. He threw for 349 yards and one touchdown and brought his team back from a 21-3 deficit.
Joseph Addai capped Manning's late drive with the winning score, a 3-yard run with 1 minute left to help the Colts (15-4) complete the rally and send coach Tony Dungy to his first Super Bowl — and a very special one.
Dungy and the Colts will face the Chicago Bears (full story below) and his good friend Lovie Smith in Miami in two weeks. Together they are the first black coaches to make the Super Bowl in its 41 years.
After Indy's last touchdown, Manning was on the sideline, his head down — he couldn't bear to watch. New England's Tom Brady — he of the three Super Bowl rings — threw an interception to Marlin Jackson and the RCA Dome crowd went wild. One kneel down later and Manning ripped off his helmet to celebrate.
Not only was it a win for Manning, the All-Pro, All-Everything son of Archie, it was a riveting, back-and-forth showcase of two of the NFL's best teams, best quarterbacks, and yet another example of why football is America's favorite sport.
It was anything but by-the-book, and that started becoming obvious when New England left guard Logan Mankins opened the scoring by pouncing on a fumbled handoff between Brady and Laurence Maroney that squirted into the Indy end zone midway through the first quarter.
It got worse from there for Manning, who telegraphed a throw to the sideline that Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel snatched and took 39 yards into the end zone for a 21-3 lead.
From there, the gameplan changed because it had to, and the game morphed from another Manning meltdown into something much more than that.
He led the Colts on an 80-yard drive late in the first half for a field goal to make it 21-6. In the third quarter, he was at his cruel best, dissecting an exhausted Patriots defense for a pair of long drives and scores.
The first came on a 1-yard quarterback sneak. The second was capped by a 1-yard pass to Dan Klecko, a defensive tackle who came in as a supposed decoy at the goal line. A circus catch by Marvin Harrison for the 2-point conversion tied the game at 21.
Bears Top Saints 39-14
The Chicago Bears know how to make a Super Bowl memorable. They're making this one historic long before it's played.
Dissed all season long, Rex Grossman and Co. are heading to the big game for the first time since 1985 after rolling over the New Orleans Saints 39-14 Sunday, and Da Coach leading them there makes it all the more special.
Lovie Smith's arrival in Miami will make him the first black head coach to reach the marquee game in its 41 years.
"I'll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy," Smith said after the Bears won the NFC championship.
This isn't the wild bunch, led by coach Mike Ditka and quarterbacked by Jim McMahon, that paraded down Bourbon Street, then routed New England for the championship 21 years ago. Its defense isn't overpowering, its quarterback isn't a renegade, its reputation isn't celebrated.
This team, despite its impressive record, was maligned all season and never possessed the overpowering aura of Ditka's gang.
Still, Smith's team did it in true Bears fashion, with big plays on defense and a steady running game in the sleet and snow, ending the Saints' uplifting saga.
"I am really into the great tradition we have with the Chicago Bears," Smith said. "I am just trying to get our football team up to that same standard Mike had his team at, especially that '85 team."
Added All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher: "For our franchise, this is big. They are a big part of this city, and what they did in '85 is huge. We have an opportunity to do that right now. We're excited to have the opportunity to kind of put the ['85] guys in the background for a little while."
All the worries about how genuine the Bears' outstanding season was disappeared thanks to running back Thomas Jones, All-Pro kicker Robbie Gould and a defense that, while not dominant, made enough decisive plays.
"I hate watching TV," defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said, "but when you see everyone picking the Saints, the thing is we won 14 games, now 15, by playing sound defense and we have been doing a good job all season. We know they are coming in as a No. 1 offense and we stepped up to the plate."
For a moment, though, in the third quarter they seemed to be in trouble.
Reggie Bush's electrifying 88-yard touchdown catch and dash to the end zone pulled the Saints within two points, 16-14. But from then on, Urlacher and the Bears' defense took over.
Chicago, which has won nine NFL titles but has been an also-ran for much of the last two decades, later went 85 yards in five plays in the worst of the weather. The oft-criticized Grossman had four completions, including a 33-yarder to a diving Bernard Berrian that clinched it, sending the bundled-up fans in Soldier Field into foot-stomping hysteria and chants of "Super Bowl, Super Bowl."
"We had a great game today," said Grossman, who was 11-for-26 for 144 yards, but made no mistakes. "This is great and all, but we have one game to go."
Jones had all 69 yards on an eight-play ground drive in the second quarter, scored twice and rushed for 123 yards. Gould nailed three field goals.
The Bears, who led the league with 44 takeaways, forced four turnovers, and when NFC passing leader Drew Brees fumbled less than a minute after Berrian's TD, whatever karma the Saints (11-7) carried this season disappeared.
"We talked a lot about getting back to what we do and that's getting takeaways," Smith said.
Cedric Benson then scored on a 12-yard run, and from there it was a matter of searching for the sunscreen.
Smith and Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, daughter of Bears founder George Halas, accepted the Halas Trophy moments after Grossman tossed the ball deep into the stands after the final kneel-down.
"This is why we play the game, to get to the Super Bowl and win," Urlacher said. "This overshadows everything."
It was a bitter, sloppy conclusion to the Saints' remarkable turnaround from a nomadic 3-13 season in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's destruction to this winning season. As their city rebuilds, the team has provided an inspiring respite in the recovery story.
This was the first trip this far into the playoffs for the 40-year-old franchise, previously best known as the Aints, whose fans wore paper bags on their heads because the team was so bad.
"Just to be able to turn this organization around a bit from where it was last year is saying a lot," Bush said. "We don't need to hang our heads about anything. ... We need to use this as motivation to come back and get to this point again next year and, hopefully, get to the Super Bowl."
Down 16-0 and throttled for 28 minutes, the Saints awakened late in the first half on a 29-yard third-down completion to Marques Colston, who previously had several drops and several more slips. Brees threw a pair of sideline darts and Colston beat Charles Tillman for a 13-yard TD that temporarily changed the flow with 46 seconds remaining in the half.
It took New Orleans only 2:40 into the third quarter to make it 16-14 on Bush's spectacular 88-yard touchdown that ended with a couple of bush moves. The rookie beat Chris Harris off the line, ignored the sleet and extended for Brees' looping pass. Then he sped down the left sideline and, at midfield, used one of those Heisman jukes past Danieal Manning.
As Bush neared the end zone, he turned and pointed tauntingly at the hopelessly trailing Urlacher before somersaulting into the end zone.
"I apologized to [coach Sean Payton] about that," Bush said. "Obviously, I know I made a mistake, but I'm not going to kill myself over it. ... You move on."
That hot-dogging wasn't close to Brees' mistake in the end zone. Under pressure but still in the pocket, he threw the ball away, causing a safety.
That erased any momentum for the Saints, and Chicago scored on Berrian's brilliant catch at the 2; he was not tackled down and stood up to cross the goal line.
A Chicago blitz stymied New Orleans' opening drive. After Devery Henderson outfought Tillman for a 40-yard pass to the Bears' 32, an all-out rush on third down led to a sack by Israel Idonije and a Saints punt into the end zone.
It set a first-half trend.
Another sack, by rookie Mark Anderson, Chicago's top pass rusher this season, was even more embarrassing to the Saints. Brees lost the ball and a Keystone Kops chase for it wound up in a 25-yard loss when rookie guard Jahri Evans recovered.
But Chicago's offense went nowhere.
So the defense got things started. Harris stripped the ball from Colston and Tillman returned it to the Saints' 36. After getting their initial first down on a 16-yard reverse by Rashied Davis, the Bears gambled on fourth-and-1 at the 4 and Benson converted.
But all they got was Gould's 19-yard field goal.
New Orleans remained charitable, and Adrian Peterson stripped kickoff returner Michael Lewis at the Saints' 30. Sean Payton lost a video challenge, and Gould hit from 43.
The sloppy footing was an issue all during the game, particularly once the cold rain, followed by sleet and snow, began falling. Runners, receivers and returners kept slipping and areas of the turf were gashed by halftime.
Gould's 24-yarder made it 9-0 and Jones had his personal touchdown drive, with his 33-yard run the Bears' longest all season.
Jones capped the ground march with a 2-yard run for a 16-0 lead. He also scored from 15 yards in the fourth quarter.
"It couldn't have been a more perfect situation for Chicago Bears football," Jones said. "Just perfect."