Manning Passes Colts Into AFC Title Game

Published: Monday, January 12, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2004 at 12:21 a.m.

KANSAS CITY, Mo.- If Peyton Manning's first playoff victory knocked the skeptics off his back, the second one placed the Indianapolis Colts firmly on it.

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Colts QB Peyton Manning looks for an open receiver during the AFC divisional playoff against the Chiefs on Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. Manning led his team past the Chiefs 38-31.

The Associated Press

With touchdowns rolling off his fingertips at an unstoppable rate, Manning strong-armed the Colts to a 38-31, shootout victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.

In a matter of two weeks, he has gone from a quarterback who couldn't win big games to one who could do nothing wrong in them.

Equally magical and masterful, Manning controlled the Kansas City defense as mightily as the momentum, finishing 22-for-30 for 304 yards and three touchdowns.

Every time the Chiefs scored -- and they scored plenty -- Manning had the answer. The NFL co-Most Valuable Player drove the Colts to scores on six of their first seven series and right into Foxboro, Mass., where they will clash with the top-seeded New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game.

"That whole `zone' thing is deep for me," said Manning, who is headed for his first AFC title game after shrugging off a 0-3 postseason record. "Michael Jordan made that popular. I'm just a football player. I'm hot -- excuse me for saying that. It's not trickery, just running the same plays we've run all season."

The way Manning methodically led the Colts to score after score, maybe he can be blamed for the breakdown of an Arrowhead end-zone scoreboard.

What was indisputable was how Manning continually turned one of the loudest outdoor stadiums eerily silent. With the Colts outgaining the Chiefs only 434-408, the difference was Manning's big plays.

Case in point: Dante Hall returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown to bring Kansas City within 31-24 with 1:35 left in the third quarter.

Manning's cool response was a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that played as much on the Chiefs' minds as their emotions. The key play was a third-and-eight at the Colts' 31-yard line, where Manning ordered a quick snap and caught Kansas City with 12 men on the field.

Edgerrin James' 1-yard dive capped the fifth scoring drive of 64 yards or more for Indianapolis.

"We knew we could score on every drive," Colts receiver Brandon Stokley said. "It felt easy, and that's a great feeling to have."

The most difficult decision came after Priest Holmes' 1-yard touchdown sliced the Chiefs' deficit to 38-31 with 4:22 left in the fourth quarter. With the Colts scoring at will -- their only two nonscoring drives ended halves -- the Chiefs lined up for an onside kick but then opted to kick it downfield and rely on their beleaguered defense.

As a result, Kansas City didn't get the ball back until just 8 seconds remained, as Indianapolis nearly ran out the clock and improved its road record this season to 8-1 and ended the Chiefs' franchise-best 13-game winning streak at Arrowhead.

"We thought about the onside kick, but we thought it would be better to kick it," Chiefs Coach Dick Vermeil said. "Percentages aren't good, and there were four minutes and some to go. I did what I thought was right at the time."

Playing the percentages is a risky proposition against Manning these days.

His postseason passer rating is nearly flawless, producing 156.9 out of a possible 158.3. The run has been Johnny Unitas-like, delivering the same wizardry in the horseshoe helmet minus the black hightops.

"He is the master," said Chiefs defensive end Eric Hicks, a former University of Maryland standout. "He took us behind the woodshed and just beat us. It's embarrassing."

The beatings from Manning have been thorough in these playoffs.

He has guided the Colts to 13 scores (10 touchdowns and three field goals) in 17 postseason possessions. He has converted an uncanny 74 percent of third downs (14-for-19).

This precision has kept punter Hunter Smith on the sideline the past two weeks. In fact, Sunday's high-scoring affair was the third time in NFL history that neither team punted.

"We're asking (Smith) to donate his playoff share to the offense," Colts center Jeff Saturday said.

Sharing the ball was the theme with Manning on Sunday.

He hit a wide-open Stokley for a 29-yard strike when Kansas City bit on a play-action fake. He hit Reggie Wayne in the corner of the end zone when the Chiefs jumped on what they thought was another slant route.

He even hit rookie Tom Lopienski for 2-yard touchdown pass -- the same Lopienski who did not have a carry or reception this entire season.

When asked if he had ever been part of an offensive stretch like this, Stokley recalled his days with the defensive-led Baltimore Ravens and said, "You know I was in Baltimore for four years. So I would say no."

The next stop for the Colts is their second visit to the AFC championship game since their relocation from Baltimore in 1984.

To reach their first Super Bowl as an Indianapolis franchise, the Colts will have to beat the Patriots and the defensive mind of their coach, Bill Belichick, who dispatched the other league MVP -- Steve McNair -- this weekend.

"Our mission is to win the Super Bowl," Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy said. "Going up there is going to be a challenge. But I think we have a team that can win it."

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