When it mattered most this past Sunday, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning was at his best, and so was New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley.
Trailing by 11 points in the second quarter to the New York Jets at Lucas Oil Stadium, Manning fashioned an 80-yard, four-play scoring drive, culminating in a 16-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Austin Collie (123 yards and seven receptions), and added two scoring strikes in the second half, as the Colts earned a hard-fought 30-17 win in the AFC title game.
At the Super Dome, the long-suffering Saints nipped the Minnesota Vikings, 31-28, in the NFC championship game, on Hartley’s 40-yard field goal in overtime.
Both were No. 1 seeds in their conference, and will tangle in Miami Feb. 7 for Super XLIV.
How good was Manning? On this day, he was a maestro, completing 26 of 39 attempts for 377 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Where San Diego couldn’t crack the century mark on the ground last week against the Jets, the Colts finished with 101 yards, as Joseph Addai led the way with 80 yards on 16 carries.
The Jets (11-8) entered as the NFL’s top running team, but managed 86 yards, with Thomas Jones accounting for 42 yards on 16 carries, and rookie Shonn Greene 41 yards on 19 carries.
Matt Stover’s 25-yard field goal early in the second quarter gave Indianapolis a 3-0 lead, but New York answered when rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez unloaded an 80-yard toss to wide receiver Braylon Edwards (100 yards and two catches) to make it 7-3.
When Stover converted a 19-yard attempt with just under nine minutes showing, Indianapolis (16-2) trimmed the lead to 7-6. Stover’s 21-yard kick in the fourth quarter made it a 13-point cushion.
New York bounced back to make it 14-6 when Sanchez (17 of 30 for 257 yards and one interception) engineered a seven-play, 77-yard drive that was capped off when he drilled tight end Dustin Keller (63 yards and six receptions) on a nine-yard pass.
New York bolted ahead 17-6 when Jay Feely, who missed two field goals, booted a 48-yarder made possible after Addai fumbled.
Manning’s four-yard pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon (151 yards and 11 receptions) capped a 57-yard, eight-play march about seven minutes into the third quarter and made it 20-17, while his 15-yard bullet to tight end Dallas Clark over the middle ended an 80-yard, seven-play drive that made it 27-17.
Though they lost, Minnesota (13-5) actually outplayed the Saints (15-3), but five turnovers, including three fumbles doomed their chances.
With the score 28-28, and late in the fourth quarter, Vikings quarterback Brett Favre threw an interception as his team was poised to score.
Favre, at age 40, may have played his last game, and he’ll remember that awful feeling when Hartley’s kick sailed through the uprights.
Favre threw for 310 yards, and completed 28 of 46 passes with one score and two interceptions, but was harassed by the Saints’ defense.
Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson (122 yards on 25 carries) scored on runs of 19, one and two yards, but was philosophical.
“They earned it, but we gave away too much,” he said.
New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas added two scores, and quarterback Drew Brees passed for 197 yards, while hitting 17 of 31, with three touchdowns.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a contributor to trufanboxing.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.