Peyton Manning’s greatness was established by the time the 2006 NFL season arrived. He had won two MVP awards. But what was also getting established is Peyton playing second fiddle in the postseason. New England’s Tom Brady, the man with whom Manning would combine to define a generation of NFL quarterbacks, already had three rings—two of which came by going through Peyton’s Indianapolis Colts. A great Colt team in 2005 flamed out in the playoffs. In 2006, the Colts broke through—they beat the Patriots in an epic AFC Championship Game, and then won the Super Bowl.
Manning’s prime targets were Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, each of whom went over 1,300 yards receiving. Rookie running back Joseph Addai ran for over 1,000 yards. The Colt offense ranked second in the NFL for points scored. And they needed to be that good, because the Indy defense, ranked 23rd in points allowed, was a problem.
But Indianapolis still churned out wins. They beat eventual playoff teams from the city of New York, knocking off the Giants 26-21 to open the season on a Sunday Night, and then edging the Jets 31-28 to start October. Indianapolis won big Sunday Night games in November, beating Brady and the Patriots 27-20, and then blowing out the NFC East champ Philadelphia Eagles 45-21 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Indianapolis finished 12-4, but the bar was high in the AFC in 2006. That record only got them the 3-seed in the playoffs.
New England’s season followed a similar trajectory. By the standards of Tom Brady, 2006 was kind of a ho-hum year, without top receiving targets. But even without standout numbers from any one individual, the Patriot offense ranked seventh in the NFL. On the defensive side, Assante Samuel was a playmaker, with 10 interceptions, keying one of the league’s top defensive units.
The Patriots got a modest challenge from the Jets, who overachieved without a single Pro Bowl player in the lineup. The AFC East also had the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, in Miami Dolphin defensive end Jason Taylor. But New England was just too consistent. A big 17-13 win over the NFC’s best, the Chicago Bears, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, was the high point.
New England finished 12-4, but that high AFC bar left them as the 4-seed and set up a Round 3 with the Jets. The Patriots and Colts, the AFC’s signature teams of the first half of the 2000s, would not get first-round byes and were facing a road route to the Super Bowl.
The AFC’s top seed came out of the West, where the San Diego Chargers pulled away from an otherwise competitive division. The great running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, had the best year of his career—over 1,800 yards rushing at better than five yards a pop and an MVP award.
Tomlinson ran behind an outstanding blocking back, Lorenzo Neal, who made 1st-team All-Pro on his ability to lead L.T. into the hole. Tight end Antonio Gates was another All-Pro. On the defensive side, so were defensive tackle Jamal Williams and linebacker Shawn Merriman. Merriman recorded 17 sacks, and fellow linebacker Shaun Phillips added 11 more.
Phillip Rivers got his first chance to start in 2006 and the 25-year-old delivered a Pro Bowl campaign. The Chargers had the most prolific offense in the NFL and ranked seventh on defense.
San Diego’s key rivals were the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. The Broncos, the defending division champs, were going through a transition, as rookie quarterback Jay Cutler took over. But Denver still got a 1,000-yard season from running back Tatum Bell and ten interceptions from cornerback Champ Bailey.
The Chiefs had the league’s second-best running back—Larry Johnson nearly got to 1,800 yards himself and was also Kansas City’s leading pass-catcher. He was the focal point for a team that had quarterback instability, with Damon Huard and Trent Green each starting eight games.
For the first half of the year, this race was close. Denver won a 9-6 defensive battle over K.C. in Week 2. In October, the Chiefs edged the Chargers 30-27, and then beat the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks 35-28.
A five-day stretch on Thanksgiving Week would be crucial. On the Sunday prior to the holiday, San Diego beat Denver 35-27 in prime-time. On Turkey Night itself, Kansas City knocked off the Broncos 19-10.
The Chargers were on a roll. In December, they won the rematch with the Chiefs and also beat the Seahawks. By season’s end, San Diego had run away to a 14-2 record, the #1 seed in the AFC and this looked to finally be the year that their great—but postseason-beleaguered—head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, would finally get his moment.
In the meantime, Denver was slumping back to the playoff fringe. The last wild-card spot came down the Broncos and Chiefs. Denver held the edge going into the finale on New Year’s Eve afternoon. In the early time slot, K.C. kept themselves alive by beating a competitive Jacksonville Jaguars team 35-30. And in the late afternoon, the Broncos were stunned in overtime, losing 26-23 to a bad San Francisco 49ers squad. Both Denver and Kansas City finished 9-7. But the Chiefs had the tiebreaker and an improbable trip to Indianapolis for the playoffs.
The 2-seed in the AFC was the Baltimore Ravens. Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed was a 1st-team All-Pro, as was linebacker Adalius Thomas. The secondary included Chris McAlister and Dawan Landry, who combined for 11 interceptions. The pass rush was bolstered by defensive end Trevor Pryce and his 13 sacks. Baltimore’s defense was the best in the league. The offense, led by 33-year-old quarterback Steve McNair and 1,100-yard rusher Jamal Lewis was good enough to ride the coattails of their great D.
The Ravens knocked off the Chargers 16-13 in early October, also beat a good New Orleans Saints team, and later knocked off the Chiefs. With the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers falling back to .500, the AFC North was wide-open, and Baltimore took full advantage of that open road. They rolled up a 13-3 record, a runaway division title, and a first-round bye.
Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bear teams were renowned for their defense and 2006 was no different. The Bears ranked second behind the Ravens in points allowed. The unit was led by All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive end Mark Anderson, who recorded 12 sacks. But what made the ’06 Bears unique for this period in franchise history is that they could also score points.
It wasn’t necessarily though quarterback play. Rex Grossman was nothing if not erratic. But Thomas Jones ran for over 1,200 yards behind a line that included All-Pro center Olin Kreutz. Chicago also had great special teams, between electrifying return man Devin Hester, and the league’s top kicker in Robbie Gould. Between the running game, the special teams, and being set up in good position by the defense, the Bear offense ranked third in the NFL for points scored. Chicago dominated the NFC North, got impressive Sunday Night wins over the Seahawks and Giants, where the Bears scored a combined 75 points, and rolled to a 13-3 record. The road to the playoffs in the NFC would come through the Windy City in January.
The great Drew Brees was starting a new phase of his career, having been traded from San Diego to make room for Rivers, and coming to New Orleans. A beautiful partnership between Brees and head coach Sean Payton began in 2006.
Brees was the All-Pro quarterback, completing 64 percent of his passes at eight yards per attempt. He had a 1,000-yard receiver in Marques Colston, a 1K rusher in Deuce McAllister, and Reggie Bush who contributed both running and receiving. Jamaal Brown was one of the league’s top offensive tackles and Will Smith was a Pro Bowl pass rusher on the defensive side.
The Saints easily won the NFC South. The highlight was a 42-17 Sunday Night demolition of the Dallas Cowboys in December. New Orleans added wins over good NFC East teams in the Eagles and Giants. New Orleans finished 10-6 and got the 2-seed, which came with a first-round bye prior to 2020.
After reaching the Super Bowl in 2005, Seattle slipped back to the playoff fringe in 2006. Shaun Alexander, their great running back, missed six games and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck missed four. The Seahawks were in the middle of the league both offensively and defensively, with no individual standout seasons. But the rest of the NFC West was no better, and the St. Louis Rams were the only team that could even hang with Seattle. The Seahawks swept both games with the Rams, got to 9-7 and took home the division title and 4-seed.
The league’s best division race took place in the NFC East, where the Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants all went down to the wire.
Philadelphia had the league’s sixth-best offense, but in the latter part of November, starting quarterback Donovan McNabb went down with an ACL tear. The good news for Philly was that they had a reliable veteran backup in Jeff Garcia, who started six games. And they had a terrific all-purpose running back in Brian Westbrook, running behind a line led by All-Pro guard Shawn Andrews. The Birds’ defense was more pedestrian, but Brian Dawkins remained the top free safety in the game.
2006 would prove to be the start of a new era in Dallas. In the first half of the season, veteran head coach Bill Parcells pulled the plug on Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and gave the job to Tony Romo. Just 26-years-old, Romo got started on a successful career that took him all the way to the broadcast booth when it was over. And in 2006, with solid veteran receivers in Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn, and a 1,000-yard rusher in Julius Jones, the Cowboy offense ranked fourth in the league. Defensively, Dallas had problems, with a rising star in edge pass rusher Demarcus Ware unable to compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.
Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants were the defending division champs, but they had to overcome an erratic year from quarterback Eli Manning, still only 25-years-old. Pro Bowl play from tight end Jeremy Shockey helped, as did 1,000-yard receiving campaign from Plaxico Burress. But nothing helped more than the presence of Tiki Barber, who rolled up 1,600 yards on the ground and caught 58 passes. Barber led the way in helping the New York offense cover up what was a bad defense.
None of the three teams were dominant, and the race had its ups and downs. The Giants beat the Eagles 30-24 in September and got a 36-22 Monday Night win over the Cowboys in October. But Philadelphia and Dallas both took their revenge on New York in the rematches.
Philadelphia had won their initial meeting with Dallas, 38-24, in October. The big battle took place on Christmas Night. The Eagles won that game too, 23-7. It was enough to lift Philadelphia to the division title at 10-6 and get the 3-seed.
The Cowboys settled for the top wild-card, going 9-7 and getting a first-round date in Seattle. The final wild-card came down to the end. The Giants got a 34-28 win over the Washington Redskins on a Saturday night prime-time affair that opened the final week, and it put New York the playoffs. As the 6-seed, the Giants would be heading to Philadelphia.
Wild-card weekend started in a ho-hum fashion. Indianapolis didn’t play particularly well offensively, but they were vastly better than Kansas City and the Colts won 23-8. The night game in Seattle was more compelling. Seattle pulled out a 21-20 win over Dallas—a victory that wasn’t secure until Romo, on as the holder, dropped the snap on what would have been a gimme field goal to win it.
Sunday’s games followed a similar rhythm. It was ho-hum in the AFC, with the Patriots dismantling the Jets 37-16. And it was exciting in the NFC. The Eagles and Giants went down to the final play when a David Akers field goal gave Philadelphia a 23-20 win.
Indianapolis went to Baltimore to open up the Divisional Round. The Ravens got the style of game they wanted—it was all about defense, and no one ever found the end zone. But the Colts got the result they wanted—with their own D playing over their head for the second straight week, Indy got a 15-6 road win.
New England’s visit to San Diego ended Divisional Round Weekend and it also ended the career of Schottenheimer. The Chargers seemed in control of much of the game and held a 21-13 lead in the fourth quarter. When San Diego safety Marlon McCree came up with a late interception to stop a Patriot drive, it seemed like that might do it. But McCree didn’t simply go down, and he was stripped of the ball. New England recovered.
Given new life, Brady completed this drive, converted the two-point play to tie it, then led another drive for a late field goal. The Patriots had a 24-21 win. Indianapolis and New England might not have opened this postseason as the favorites. But the AFC Championship Game was still coming down to Peyton and Brady.
In between the AFC games, were a pair of good 27-24 finishes in the NFC. New Orleans rallied from 21-13 down at home against Philadelphia, behind 143 yards and a pair of second half touchdowns from McAlister to win it. The Saints would go to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history. And that trip would be to Chicago. The Bears trailed the Seahawks 24-21 with less than five minutes to play. But Gould tied the game with one field goal and then won it with another in overtime.
Chicago jumped out to a fast 16-0 lead on New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game. The Saints got back in the game, with an 88-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Bush and they cut the margin to 16-14 in the third quarter. But New Orleans was turning the ball over with fumbles and the Bears were dominating the ground game. Chicago pulled back away and punched their Super Bowl ticket with a 39-14 rout.
That brings us to Peyton and Brady. Indianapolis was the first team seeded as low as #3 to host a conference championship game since the Washington Redskins in 1987. But when New England bolted out of the gate to a 21-3 lead, including a Pick-6 from Samuels, Colts fans who thought “Here we go again” couldn’t be blamed. But this year would be different.
The Indianapolis defense settled down and by the late third quarter we had a 21-21 tie. The two great quarterbacks then began trading blows. Peyton got the last one, leading a drive that ended in a three-yard touchdown run from Addai with a minute to play. The Colts had pulled out one of the all-time great AFC Championship Games, 38-34.
In an All-Midwest Super Bowl, Indy was a comfortable 6 ½ point favorite. But the heavy Miami rain the game was played in could work in the underdog’s favor. And Chicago struck quickly—Hester took the opening kickoff to the house and the Bears had a 14-6 lead after the first quarter.
Indianapolis gradually took control in the second and third quarters, but their lead was still just 22-17 going into the final period. The dagger blow came early in that fourth quarter when Colt defensive back Kelvin Hayden picked off Grossman and took it 56 yards for a touchdown. The scoring ended there. The final was 29-17. The Colts were Super Bowl champs. And the monkey on Peyton’s back, undeserved as it was, could finally be lifted.