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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Chances were killed by a reverse

INDIANAPOLIS -- Somebody switched the script. Whoever was supposed to deliver the scintillating ending to the respective locker rooms of the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts in this AFC Championship game must have committed an error.

Weren't the Patriots the team that was supposed to piece together the clutch drive with the game on the line? Didn't New England boast the group of wily veterans who never -- ever -- would relinquish a 21-3 lead? Wasn't Tom Brady the poised quarterback who ripped the heart out of absolutely anyone who stood in the way of a trip to the Super Bowl? Who on earth was better at closing the deal than the Patriots?

The Colts, that's who. The team with the horseshoes on its helmets, which habitually had been unlucky, unimpressive, and unfulfilled in its trips to the postseason, finally found a way to outlast its nemesis last night.

It will be Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy who will skip all the way to Miami and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, not Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

This numbing fact will take some time to sink in.

"I just felt we should have won this game," said defensive lineman Ty Warren. "Just the fact that we were up, 21-3, and we didn't finish them off. That hurts more than anything else."

We have come to accept that whenever a key football game comes down to the final seconds, the Patriots always will find a way to win. It has been that way throughout their history, particularly against this opponent.

When Manning, Brady's friend, stepped up to the line, trailing, 34-31, with 2:17 to play at his 20, who really believed he could lead his team to redemption? But when young Patriots linebacker Eric Alexander, starting in place of Tully Banta-Cain, dropped into zone coverage and realized with horror that receiver Bryan Fletcher had cruised behind him, Manning hit Fletcher with a 32-yard bomb that gave the Colts the confidence they've never had in such a scenario. They were in New England territory, on the 37-yard line, and they were on the move.

On the next play, Manning hit Reggie Wayne with a 14-yard strike, and they got an extra 12 yards when Banta-Cain was flagged for roughing the passer.

It was the kind of penalty that so often has gone in New England's favor, not against it. Usually, it's the other guys who make mistakes at the most critical times.

Yet there were the Colts, standing on the Patriots' 11, poised to obliterate their legacy of coughing up the big one.

And, when Joseph Addai trotted into the end zone untouched for a 3-yard touchdown with one minute left in the game, Indianapolis had its first lead, 38-34. A quick glance at the Colts' bench revealed a legion of proud athletes who looked like giant boulders had been lifted from their collective shoulders.

"We let them back in the game," said Patriots receiver Reche Caldwell. "We let them back in, and they took the game."

New England got the ball back with 54 seconds to play, but there was no miracle to send the Patriots to Miami. Their drive stalled when Marlin Jackson leaped in front of Brady's pass at the Indianapolis 35 and intercepted the hopes and dreams of every Patriots fan.

"I've heard the words 'poetic justice' used," said Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who once sent game-winners through the uprights for New England. "We're very, very happy right now."

There will be no more talk of Manning falling flat in the playoffs, no more talk of the Colts being outwitted by the Patriots. Indianapolis rose to the occasion like no other time in its history, and New England paid the price.

Who would ever believe the Patriots could build a 21-3 lead, then let it get away?

The Patriots defense, which had been in bend-but-don't-break mode for most of the first half, could not consistently stop Manning and his arsenal in the final two quarters. And, when Colts center Jeff Saturday (Jeff Saturday!!!) jumped on a Dominic Rhodes fumble in the end zone for a touchdown with four minutes to go in the third quarter, the game was knotted, 28-28, and the momentum favored the home team, which had more than 57,000 delirious fans urging it on.

It was a remarkable reversal of fortune from earlier in the game, when New England appeared to be on its way to a pounding of its AFC rival.

C'mon, admit it. Sometime shortly after Logan Mankins (Logan Mankins!!!) recovered a fumble in the end zone, and Asante Samuel picked off Manning and ran it back 39 yards to provide a stunning 21-3 lead for the Patriots, you thought this game was over.

You weren't alone.

Media personnel already were busily preparing Manning stories, adding this performance to his list of Can't-Win-The-Big-Ones. New England's domination seemed so thorough, so multifaceted, it was hard to imagine the demoralized Colts recovering. Samuel and Hobbs were flummoxing top receivers Marvin Harrison and Wayne, and rookie Addai had been rendered ineffective.

But when Manning marched his club downfield just before the half with the kind of precision Brady has come to embody, it injected some life into the somber, fretting crowd. Indy chipped away at its deficit by tacking on a Vinatieri field goal to make a 21-6 with seven seconds left until halftime, and suddenly the Patriots' dominating advantage didn't feel quite so convincing.

Yet it was the opening drive of the third quarter that officially turned the tide. Indianapolis trudged 76 yards on 14 plays, chewed up 6:47 of the clock, then scored on a Manning keeper from the 1.

The next time Indy got the ball, it resulted in a 1-yard strike to Dan Klecko (Dan Klecko!!!), a 2-point conversion to Harrison, and a tie ballgame.

The two drives left suddenly queasy Patriots fans pondering the unthinkable -- could their team possibly blow this game?

Patriots players conceded afterward they were winded and worn down in that final half. Their defense was on the field for long stretches, and it showed.

"They kept us off balance and we were kind of winded," said lineman Richard Seymour. "They mixed it up well. Give credit to their play-calling."

"When they're all spread out like that and everyone is all over the place, it's tough, man," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "No excuses, though. We had the dagger in them, and we didn't twist it in enough. We let them survive, and with an explosive offense like that, that's a mistake."

This was not a game of blown opportunities. To the contrary, it was a game of two well-prepared teams who were hell-bent on making sure their group was the last one standing.

For once, Manning and Dungy reaped the benefits.

And, for once, all Brady and Belichick could do was look on enviously as Indianapolis took one step closer to becoming a champion.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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