The 2006 Indianapolis Colts had endured their fair share of frustration since arriving as a contender behind quarterback Peyton Manning in 1999. They had yet to reach the Super Bowl, and been twice defeated by the New England Patriots in the postseason.
2005 was the unkindest cut of all—after a 13-0 start, the Colts suffered personal tragedy when head coach Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide. Indianapolis lost its final three games and was then upset in the playoffs by the 6-seed Pittsburgh Steelers.
Indianapolis got off to a similarly strong start in 2006, winning their first nine games, including consecutive road wins at New England and at Denver, who had gotten off to a strong start. But there was an alarmingly familiar to finish. While there was no personal tragedy this time, Indy lost four of its final seven games and finished 12-4.
Manning produced another vintage year—nearly 4,400 yards passing and a 31/9 TD-INT ratio, with weapons that included 1,000-yard receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. But the defense ranked just 23rd in the NFL in points allowed and the Colts could only hope that the late-season return of safety Bob Sanders would make things better when playoff time began.
Playoff time would be none too easy, because the bracket was decidedly imbalanced in favor of AFC strength. The Colts’ 12-4 record wasn’t even enough for a first-round bye, instead slotting them as the #3 seed. The Patriots had also won twelve games and they too would play on the postseason’s first weekend. San Diego, at 14-2, along with 13-3 Baltimore held the top two seeds and the first-round byes.
Indianapolis beat the Kansas City Chiefs 23-8 in a first-round game that was easy, although less than inspiring. Adam Vintateri, the kicker heisted away from New England in free agency, hit three early field goals, two from 48 and 50 yards, to build a 9-0 lead. A short touchdown run by Indy running back Joseph Addai stretched it to 16-0. After the Chiefs cut the lead in half, Peyton tossed a short TD pass to clinch.
Manning had not played well though—while the completion percentage was there, at 30/38, he was kept underneath for just 268 yards, and worse, had thrown three interceptions. Fortunately, Indianapolis controlled the line of scrimmage. Addai ran for 122 yards, Dominic Rhodes added 68 more, while defensively the Colts held Kansas City to 44 rush yards and got four sacks. An optimist would say that maybe Indianapolis was finally showing it could play the kind of defense that wins championships.
Now it was time to find out, because with New England also advancing, it set up a four-team AFC playoff that might as well have been for the Super Bowl trophy. These were the best four teams in football and never before—nor since—has any championship hopeful had to navigate such a difficult bracket.
*Baltimore, who awaited Indianapolis in the second round, won nine of their last ten games and had the #1 defense in the NFL. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis were already established stars, and were joined by 24-year-old Terrell Suggs. Then add in Pro Bowlers like Chris McAlister and Bart Scott, along with a rookie destined for great things in Haloti Ngata.
The Ravens got enough offense to get by, with Steve McNair rejuvenating his career after leaving Tennessee, and Jamal Lewis rushing for 1,132 yards. The Ravens returned the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
*New England had the #2 defense in the NFL in spite of just one Pro Bowler, defensive tackle Richard Seymour. The Patriots also won 12 games and had the seventh-best offense in the NFL in spite of something less than a vintage year from quarterback Tom Brady. With his receiving corps lacking in quality—Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell passed as go-to players—Brady did not make the Pro Bowl and threw 12 interceptions, but still piled up over 3,500 yards through the air.
*But the team everybody was focused on was the San Diego Chargers. The Bolts, after a 4-2 start, won ten straight to end the year and running back LaDanian Tomlinson won the MVP award, thanks to 1,815 yards rushing and 28 touchdowns. Philip Rivers was in his first year as a starter and threw for over 3,300 yards with a 22/9 TD-INT ratio. Antonio Gate was as good a tight end as there was anywhere, and there were two Pro Bowlers on the offensive front.
Two more defensive lineman made the Pro Bowl, including defensive end Shawn Merriman, who recorded 17 sacks. Shaun Phillips played outside linebacker and got 11 ½ sacks of his own. San Diego was 7-2 when they arrived in Denver on a Sunday night with first place on the line. After falling behind 24-7, the Chargers stormed back and won 35-27. The Broncos collapsed, as did the career of head coach Mike Shanahan after that. San Diego never looked back en route to the AFC’s #1 seed.
It looked like this might finally be the year that head coach Marty Schottenheimer finally overcame years of playoff frustration and won a Super Bowl. And as hard as it seems to believe in retrospect, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were flying a little bit under the radar in this tremendous AFC bracket.
The city of Baltimore still despises the Colts for the Irsay family’s cowardly decision to move the team to the Midwest literally in the dead of night after the 1983 season. It would be a hostile crowd that would greet Peyton and the Colts in a 4:30 PM ET start on Saturday afternoon.
There would also be a lot of defense. Manning had his second straight pedestrian game of the postseason, going 15/30 for 170 yards and throwing two interceptions. But the Colts’ defense again delivered. Neither team scored a touchdown, and thanks to five field goals from Vinateri, Indy won 15-6 and reached the AFC Championship Game.
The late Sunday afternoon game was New England-San Diego. The Chargers led 14-3 in the first half, and then held a 21-13 as the game wore into the latter part of the fourth quarter. A Patriot drive was halted when San Diego safety Marlon McCree intercepted Brady, the third pick the Bolts had gotten. But McCree, rather than play it safe and go down, tried to go for yardage and he fumbled. New England recovered, one of three San Diego fumbles that ended up in Patriot hands.
It’s the kind of scenario that can only happen to a Schottenheimer-coached team, and the Patriots took advantage of the gift to score the tying touchdown and two-point conversion. Then San Diego went three-out and out. It looked like Brady might do the same, as he faced a 3rd-and-10. Caldwell went deep down the right side. Brady threw him a perfect pass and Caldwell ended up with a 49-yard gain. New England kicked a field goal, and held off a furious San Diego rally, as the Chargers got a crack at a 54-yarder that missed.
Schottenheimer would be fired by San Diego in the offseason—there was serious organizational dysfunction, as general manager A.J. Smith refused all attempts by the head coach to work out a strained personal relationship and another playoff loss shifted the leverage Smith’s way. One of the NFL’s genuinely outstanding coaches saw his career end in the stacked bracket that was the 2006 AFC playoffs.
So here we were—after all the posturing by San Diego and Baltimore during the season, it was Brady and Peyton, New England and Indianapolis, that would play in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. And Indy would get the rare chance to be a 3-seed that hosts a conference title game (the 1987 Washington Redskins are the only other 3-seed to do so, while the 2008 Arizona Cardinals did it as the 4-seed).
The game couldn’t have started worse for the Colts. New England scored two defensive touchdowns and built a 21-3 lead. It was 21-6 at the half. Then, after ten quarters of very mediocre playoff football, Manning got locked in. Indianapolis used two consecutive touchdown drives, sandwiched around a three-and-out by the Patriots, to tie the game at 21-21 late in the third quarter.
Indianapolis and New England started trading points, and it was 31-31, when Patriot kicker Stephen Gotkowski hit a field goal to put the Patriots up by three points. Manning got the football on his own 20-yard line with 2:17 remaining and a legacy in the balance.
Manning found no-name receiver Bryan Fletcher on a 32-yard pass, and then later got a roughing the passer penalty. Indianapolis virtually flew down the field, and Addai scored on a short touchdown run with 1:02 left. New England was able to drive it to the Indy 45-yard line, but needing a touchdown rather than just a field goal, the Patriots were unable to finish.
At long last, Peyton Manning was going to the Super Bowl. It might not have been a dominant postseason, but we had all seen the Colts’ quarterback pile up more than enough numbers. This time he was clutch, and had led the biggest comeback ever in a conference championship game.
I’m sure the Super Bowl wasn’t anticlimactic for Indianapolis fans, but for objective observers, the Colts’ win against the overmatched Chicago Bears seemed just a matter of playing it out. In spite of a heavy rain in Miami and in spite of the Bears’ returning the opening kick for a touchdown, Indianapolis cruised to a 29-17 win. Manning was game MVP. He, and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, had gotten a big monkey off their backs.