For a good number of Patriots fans, halftime was spent clearing schedules, requesting vacation, booking flights to Miami, and securing hotel rooms.
It was a done deal.
The New England Patriots were heading back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six seasons. Tom Brady sat back and watched as center Logan Mankins recover a fumble for a touchdown. He watched from the sidelines as cornerback Asante Samuel picked off Peyton Manning as New England roared out to a 21-3 lead. It was 21-6 by halftime, once again beating Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship game, a script seen before with the ending of warm familiarity all but inevitable.
Brady would have his shot at a fourth Super Bowl title against the Chicago Bears, earning revenge for the then-21-year-old embarrassment laid out for his New England ancestors in New Orleans, and cementing the present-day Patriots as one of the NFL’s most dominant dynasties. Manning would, once again, be a Big Game bridesmaid, a guy with all the numbers looking on from the outside, while Brady was in search of even more jewelry, a ring that, it seemed, the more time passed, the more it might be unattainable for the Colts quarterback.
In the next 30 minutes, everything would change.
“We had the dagger in them, and we didn’t twist it in enough,” said cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who, along with Samuel, Roosevelt Colvin, and Ty Warren, gave the Colts fits in the Patriots’ dominant first half on the defensive side of the ball. “We let them survive, and with an explosive offense like that, that’s a mistake.”
Manning finally won the “big one,” and a Super Bowl to boot. The Patriots defense, so stalwart in building a seemingly-relentless lead on the Colts in the first half on that memorable evening in the old RCA Dome, choked at the most inopportune moments in the fourth quarter. And Brady, who went into the game with Ben Watson, Troy Brown, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, and Daniel Graham as his primary throwing targets, couldn’t muster any of the magic that had helped define him in previous Super Bowl runs in ’01, ’03, and ’04.
But the Colts’ 38-34 victory on Jan. 21, 2007, did more than end the Patriots’ dynasty. It accomplished what most thought impossible at the time, what many still refuse to acknowledge almost eight years after Manning and the Colts came back and changed the legends of Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots forever.
It has never been the same since.
Prior to that game, Brady’s record in the postseason was a sparkling 14-1, the lone loss coming the previous year to the Denver Broncos. Since that day, Brady has helped lead the Patriots to two Super Bowls and the brink of the NFL’s first perfect, 19-0 campaign. But he’s also only 6-7 in playoff games over that span, embarrassed by the Ravens in ’09, demoralized by the Jets in ’10, thwarted by the Giants, twice, on the biggest stage.
And, of course, he was beaten once again by that guy who was once burdened with the tag line of succumbing under pressure.
It hasn’t gone much better for Manning, mind you, a 6-6 playoff record since getting over the Belichick hump, a stretch that includes both a Lombardi trophy and an utter embarrassment at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks’ 43-8 domination of the Broncos in last January’s Super Bowl.
But as the two best quarterbacks of their generation prepare for another meeting in Foxborough this Sunday, when the 6-1 Broncos visit the 6-2 Patriots, like it or not, it is the 2006 AFC title game that still stands out as the defining moment of this great rivalry. For it was that game that shed Manning’s image as guy who would be lumped in with Dan Marino, one of the best to play the game who happened to play in the shadow of the NFL’s most profound winners in Brady.
As for his Patriots counterpart, Brady lost a little mystique that day. At the age of 29, he had already led New England on six playoff-winning drives, most recently the previous week during an epic, 24-21, win at San Diego. The Patriots befuddled the Chargers in the fourth quarter of that game, and left All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson muttering about the Patriots’, and particularly their head coach’s lack of “class.”
One week later in Indianapolis, Brady had another shot. On the Patriots’ final possession of the game, down by four in the moments after running back Joseph Addai rambled into the end zone to give the Colts the lead, Brady found Watson for 19 yards, Heath Evans for 15 more. Then, with 24 seconds remaining, and first and 10 from the Colts 45, Marlin Jackson creeped in front of Watson and picked off Brady’s pass, intended for the tight end.
It was an interception that nearly had happened on the Patriots’ previous drive, back when they still led the game by three. On a third and four play from the New England 46, Brady watched in horror as his intended pass to Brown was nearly grabbed by defensive back Bob Sanders, who might have run the ball into the end zone right then and there, preventing Manning from his dramatic drive to win the game. It certainly would have even given Brady and the Patriots offense more than twice the 54 seconds they inevitably had to work with in order to put something together.
Instead, it was Manning who took the moment to shine. The Colts were at their own 31-yard line with 2:12 left to play, when tight end Bryan Fletcher, whom Manning had nicknamed “The Suggestion Box” encouraged the QB that he could beat linebacker Eric Alexander on a pump route. “You know what, that’s actually not a bad idea,” Manning said he thought to himself.
Manning found him all right on the next play. Fletcher dropped the ball.
The tight end didn’t give up though, and his persistence altered NFL history.
“He comes back, to his credit, as opposed to going ‘Sorry, you know I’m done making suggestions,’ and he goes, ‘I can beat him on a corner route,’” Manning said. “I’m going, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re coming back with another idea? I mean this is not exactly a practice or a preseason game.’
“And all of a sudden it kind of dinged. This actually, is a really, really good idea.”
On the next play, Manning found Fletcher down the left side of the field for 32 yards and into New England territory. Four plays later, the Colts were in the end zone, and Manning had his defining moment.
“We never closed the door, and when you don’t close the door on a good football team, they’re not going away,” former Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour said. “They kept fighting, and they made the plays when they needed to make them. Usually, we’re on the opposite end of the stick. We were 30 minutes away and just couldn’t seal the deal.”
Brady wouldn’t put together another playoff game-winning drive for another five years, when he led a fourth quarter drive that helped the Pats to a 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship, a game more remembered for Baltimore’s gaffes (Lee Evans dropped a touchdown pass from Joe Flacco in the end zone with 27 seconds remaining. Kicker Billy Cundiff created a new verb for choking when he missed a 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds on the clock.) than Brady’s heroics.
It is the only time in the 12 postseason games since the heartbreak in Indy that the Patriots have won a contest decided by fewer than nine points.
Seven of the Patriots’ wins in the 13 playoff games prior to the ’06 title game were decided by seven points or fewer, six of those by three points.
The knee-jerk reaction to that reality would be to argue that since Adam Vinatieri jumped ship to the Colts, the Patriots never had that legendary leg to fall back on, which is totally inaccurate. The reality though is that something changed in the wake of that loss to Manning and the Colts, a philosophy-changing revelation that spoke to the bile that built up in Belichick over losing to an NFL darling who always, nonetheless, could call the Patriots coach his “daddy.”
The response was to turn Brady into Manning, giving Brady weapons on par with what the Colts quarterback had to work with. He traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker. He signed free agent Donté Stallworth. He turned the Patriots, who had won three Super Bowls backed by defense, determination, and schemes unmatched in the league, into an offensive juggernaut, launching the franchise towards an undefeated regular season and ultimate denial in the Super Bowl.
Perfection gone, and Brady injured the following season, the Patriots wouldn’t win another playoff game for four, long years.
And so here we are, once again, with both quarterbacks still at the top of their games, and the Patriots coming off another AFC Championship game loss to Manning, this time in Denver. But in this instance, instead of loading up on toys for Brady to play with on the gridiron, Belichick focused on getting his defense back in check once again, signing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to strengthen the Patriots’ defensive backfield, and improving the receiving corps only slightly with the addition of Brandon LaFell, while Emmanuel Sanders hoofed it to Denver.
How do you beat Manning? Do you become him, or do you look to your past?
“We said all week, we can’t play against mystique, we can’t play against the past,” former Colts coach Tony Dungy said after the win in 2007.
With the Patriots dominance in the playoffs of ’03 and ’04 finally in his past, Manning re-wrote the script that January day in 2007. He became Brady in the second half, while Brady, in turn, became Manning the following season.
Manning has one ring since that day.
Brady is still waiting for No. 4.
Both continue to compile career millstones in 2014. Earlier this month against the Bengals, Brady surpassed 50,000 passing yards in his career. Less than two weeks ago against the 49ers, Manning tossed his 509th touchdown pass, passing Brett Favre on the all-time list.
But Sunday will be merely a preview to another possible AFC showdown in January, when we’ll ask the question we never thought possible a decade ago: Can Belichick and Brady get over the Manning blockade?
Before the ’06 game, the New England franchise was 5-0 in AFC title games; since, it is 2-2.
That game changed more than the psyches of an organization and its fan base.
As it has turned out, it has changed legacies as well.