BALTIMORE -- In one of the biggest games of his pressurized nine-year NFL career, Peyton Manning played with the cool detachment of the greatest Colt of them all, Johnny Unitas, on Saturday. It wasn't anywhere near the best game of his life, but under the circumstances -- a playoff game in the city that now lives to hate the Colts, against a Baltimore defense that was both the most feared and top-rated in the NFL this season -- it was one of the most rewarding.
Colts 15, Revenge 6.
In beating the Ravens, the AFC's second seed, Manning showed how ridiculous a stat quarterback rating is, compiling a woeful 39.6 rating. But he completed 15 of 30 passes, was sacked only once and threw two interceptions (one a Hail-Mary sort of punt) while controlling the line of scrimmage throughout and taking away the Baltimore defense's aggressiveness. He outplayed his co-2003 MVP, Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair, who threw two terribly inopportune interceptions in Indianapolis territory.
"Stats mean nothing in a game like this,'' Indianapolis quarterback coach Jim Caldwell said. "Peyton controlled this game.''
And Adam Vinatieri, imported from New England for days just like this, was just as valuable as Manning, accounting for all 15 Indianapolis points. He kicked field goals of 23 and 42 yards in the first quarter, bounced a 51-yarder off the crossbar in the second quarter, and hit a 48-yarder on the first series of the second half. "Better to be lucky than good,'' he said, grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. Vinatieri hit an insurance 35-yarder with 23 seconds left. The five field goals gave him an NFL-playoff-record 34 for his storied career.
So the third-seed Colts (14-4) advance to the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m. If the Chargers beat New England in the other AFC divisional game Sunday, San Diego will host the title game. If the Patriots win Sunday, New England will play at Indianapolis for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLI.
The game didn't match the Colts-returning-to-Baltimore hype, in any way. There was little drama, no pyrotechnics, and the crowd was out of the game soon after the fans blew the roof off M&T Bank Stadium when a purple-sweatshirted Cal Ripken, Jr. walked to midfield as the Ravens' honorary captain.
If you wanted a more intense setting for a game, you'd have to go to Columbus for Ohio State-Michigan. Or the Bronx, for Yankees-Red Sox. This was insane, starting long before the game. A local radio station asked fans for evidence that they were taking this game seriously, and one listener emailed a photo of her Norwich Terrier ... spray-painted Ravens purple. A bald TV weatherman, Norm Evans, had his head painted black and a Ravens' beak painted on his forehead for his Channel 2 weather report Friday evening.