The child closed her eyes late in the third quarter, unruffled by the din inside the RCA Dome. By the time six-year-old Quisha James fell asleep on the lap of Ashley Manning, their loved ones had helped turn Sunday's highly anticipated playoff clash between the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos into a snoozer.
"Man, I thought it was going to be a game," Quisha's father, Colts running back Edgerrin James, said later. "But things got kind of boring in the second half, and I guess my little girl checked out."
All over America grownups in Barcaloungers had a similar reaction. After AFC South champion Indianapolis rolled to a 41-10 victory over wild card Denver—the very foe that put a 31-17 hurt on the Colts in the same stadium two weeks earlier—it was time to remove the label of postseason patsy from Indy. That was also true for James, All-Pro wideout Marvin Harrison, coach Tony Dungy (who broke a four-game playoff losing streak) and, most of all, quarterback Peyton Manning, whose can't-win-the-big-game burden had felt a thousand times heavier than the child sleeping on his wife's lap.
"When you're the quarterback and you've got an 0-3 record in the playoffs, there's a lot of pressure on you," Manning conceded after the game. "You work all year for another chance, and it would have been really, really frustrating not to change all that."
In the best game of his six-year career—hell, in the best game of almost anyone's career—Manning was composed, confident and in command. He connected on 22 of 26 passes for 377 yards (327 by halftime) and five touchdowns, delighting 56,586 fans and sending the Colts into a divisional playoff with the equally explosive Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
The Chiefs' primary mission will be to slow Indy's Big Three of Manning, James (115 combined rushing and receiving yards) and Harrison (seven catches, 133 yards, two touchdowns), who often have fantasized during their five seasons together about starring on a grander stage. A few weeks ago during a practice, Manning called James and Harrison aside to offer up his latest dream Super Bowl scenario: third-and-one, Manning play-fakes to James and runs a bootleg around right end, then hurdles a defender. But several others converge, and at the last second Manning laterals to Harrison, who scores the winning touchdown.
"You're crazy, P," Harrison said. As the Broncos game approached, Manning was similarly playful. On Wednesday he caught his receivers off guard by apologizing for having upbraided them repeatedly during the Colts' taut, division-clinching victory over the Houston Texans the previous Sunday. "Guys, I'm sorry, and I won't ever raise my voice with you again," Manning promised, drawing big laughs with that last comment.
On Friday, Manning learned he'd been voted the NFL's co-MVP, along with Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, and arrived home to find a celebratory cake decorated by his wife. ("She left off the 'co-' part," Peyton noted.) "In the 10 years I've known him," Ashley said Sunday night, "I've never seen him so relaxed before a game."
Manning was even looser during the action, throwing the first of two scoring passes to slot receiver Brandon Stokley (four catches, 144 yards) on Indy's first drive and producing points on the Colts' first seven possessions. So spellbound were the Broncos' defenders that several of them simply stood around after Harrison's diving catch at the Denver 30 late in the first quarter. Still untouched after several seconds, Harrison got up and sprinted to the end zone.
By the time the Broncos realized their mistake, they—and Quisha—were well on their way to slumberland.