INDIANAPOLIS -- America was prepared for two more weeks of Bill Belichick-Hoodie-Chic, gridiron dynasty symposiums, and speculation about which supermodel might show up on the golden right arm of Tom Brady when the Patriots played the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
Instead, it's going to be Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts against the Bears in Miami Feb. 4.
Manning finally fulfilled his destiny and purged the ghosts of Belichick and Brady last night as the Colts roared back from a 21-3 deficit and defeated New England, 38-34, for the AFC Championship in front of 57,433 ecstatic Midwesterners at the RCA Dome.
"They're a hard team to stop," said an ashen Belichick. "Both teams scored a lot of points today, but I don't want to take anything away from them. They did a good job."
It was a stunning reversal for New England's always-clutch team. The defeat was sealed when defensive back Marlin Jackson picked off a Brady pass in the closing seconds. This time, the cleat was on the other foot. After a run of three Super Bowls in five years, the Patriots' lucky horseshoe was ceremoniously transferred to the helmets of the Colts.
It was the greatest comeback in championship game history and made for a bitter pill for New England's spoiled fans. The Colts did to the Patriots what the Patriots have been doing to everybody for the better part of the past six seasons. This must be what Yankees fans experienced when the Red Sox finally overthrew the Pinstripe Gang.
The loss drops the Belichick/Brady playoff record to 12-2, makes New England 5-1 in AFC Championship games, and denied the Patriots a chance to win their fourth Super Bowl in six years. It's going to be a long, cold Super Bowl in Greater Boston. Not much happening until Red Sox pitchers and catchers report Feb. 16.
It'll probably take the entire offseason to dissect and analyze everything that transpired on the floor of the Hoosier football theater last night. The game was tied three times in the second half and the Colts did not take their first lead until rookie Joseph Addai scampered into the end zone with one minute remaining.
A minute is a lot of time for Brady, but there was no Patriot miracle this time. He managed a couple of big completions, but there was too much ground to cover and too little time. Dropping back near midfield with 24 seconds left, Brady threw the ball over the middle and it was picked off by Jackson.
"It's a dream come true," said the Indianapolis defensive back. "Sometimes you make a play. You're tired, you fight through it and keep on going hard. We said it all week. It's our time."
The victory puts Colts coach Tony Dungy in the Super Bowl against his friend, Bears coach Lovie Smith. They are the first African Americans to coach in a Super Bowl.
Ever-comfortable in their role as underdogs, the Patriots embarrassed the ponies in the first half. Manning appeared bound for eternal disgrace while Brady and Belichick were making it look even easier than usual.
The ever-fortunate sons of New England scored on their own fumble when 310-pound Logan Mankins fell on the football in the end zone. The Patriots got another score when Asante Samuel picked off a Manning dart and ran it back 39 yards for a touchdown. Easy. Maybe too easy.
Faced with abject embarrassment in their own house, the Colts fought back and managed a field goal to make it 21-6 at intermission. Then they came out after halftime and dominated.
It was fast.
Showing the quick-strike capability that has marked his career, Manning moved the Colts 76 yards at the start of the second half, scoring on a 1-yard sneak, cutting New England's lead to 21-13.
Three minutes later, the Colts tied the game as Manning drove them 76 yards on six plays, connecting with ex-Patriot Dan Klecko on a 1-yard touchdown pass after a killer pass interference call on Ellis Hobbs. Indy went for 2 points and tied it on a touch pass to Harrison. It was 21-21 with four minutes left in the third quarter.
There would be two more ties before it ended. A Brady touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney at the back of the end zone made it 28-21, then the Colts scored, using a Patriot-like fluke play as center Jeff Saturday fell on a Dominic Rhodes fumble in the end zone to make it 28-28 with 13 minutes left.
After an exchange of punts, the Patriots got into position for a go-ahead 28-yard field goal by rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
Trailing, 31-28, with 7:35 left, Manning took over on his 23-yard line. He opened with a 48-yard pass-and-catch to tight end Dallas Clark. The Colts didn't get much more and settled for a tying 36-yard field goal by a guy named Adam Vinatieri. It was 31-31 with 5:31 left. Brady time.
The first play was a 25-yard completion to Daniel Graham. The Patriots didn't get much more, but kid kicker Gostkowski boomed a 43-yarder to put New England back ahead, 34-31, with 3:49 left.
After two more punts, Manning took over on his 20 with 2:17 left and one timeout to burn. On second and 10 from his 31, he found Bryan Fletcher for 32 yards to the Patriots' 37. The Colts moved to the 11 on another completion to Reggie Wayne, getting extra yards on a roughing the passer penalty on Tully Banta-Cain. Two plays later, Addai was in the end zone with the Colts' first lead of the night.
"We didn't want to score too fast," acknowledged Manning. "You don't want to give Tom Brady too much time.
"Coach Dungy was calm when we were down, 21-3," said Manning. "It can't be a panic situation. You can't try to get it back all at once. We kind of slowly chipped away at the lead and made some plays. Who would have thought that Klecko would score a touchdown?"
The first half was nothing like the second. In the first two quarters, the Patriots were able to do as they pleased and Manning was inept. Trailing, 14-3, he threw a pass and Samuel jumped in front of Marvin Harrison and returned it for the score. It was 21-3 with 9:25 left in the first half.
"That's a big swing right there," said Manning. "Samuel made a great play."
On the next series, Manning was sacked on back-to-back plays and faced a third and 24 from his 3. The Colts staved off more embarrassment on their final possession of the half, putting 3 more points on the board when Vinatieri kicked a 26-yarder with seven seconds left . It was hardly satisfying for Colts fans, who'd hoped for at least one touchdown before intermission.
They got more than revenge in the second half. They got a ticket to the Super Bowl.
"We're excited to be representing the AFC," said a vindicated Manning.
"We said all week, we can't play against mystique, we can't play against the past," said an ever-gracious Dungy.
No more mystique. The past is past. And the Colts, not the Patriots, are going to the Super Bowl.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.