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Manning and the offense came out firing; he ended a 14-play, 76-yard drive with a one-yard sneak to make it 21--13. The Pats went three and out, and Manning mobilized once again, beginning with a 25-yard pass over the middle to Clark. The drive ended, improbably, on Manning's one-yard toss to backup defensive lineman and goal line fullback Dan Klecko. When Harrison made a terrific catch of a gorgeous Manning fade to the right corner for a two-point conversion to tie the game with four minutes left in the third quarter, it was time for the world's two best quarterbacks to step on the gas.
Gentlemen, start your spirals. Brady's willowy six-yard toss to wideout Jabar Gaffney in the back of the end zone put New England up 28--21. Manning answered by driving Indy to the Patriots' two, whereupon Saturday recovered running back Dominic Rhodes's fumble to tie the game. The teams traded field goals before rookie Stephen Gostkowski's 43-yarder gave New England a 34--31 lead with 3:49 left. Each defense forced punts without allowing a first down, and when Manning trotted onto the field with 2:17 to go and the ball at his own 20, these were the stakes: Drive 80 yards and take a trip to Electric Bradyland; fall short and face at least another year's worth of chokes-under-pressure barbs.
Manning was on his game even before kickoff, as his mother, Olivia, attested outside the Colts' locker room afterward. Noting that she and her husband, former Saints quarterback Archie, were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary, Olivia gestured toward Peyton's older brother, Cooper, and his younger brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli, standing nearby. "Only one of my boys remembered," Olivia said, pulling out her cellphone to reveal a text message sent at 2:58 p.m. HAPPY ANNIVERSARY. I LOVE Y'ALL -- PEYTON.
On the most glorious drive a Manning quarterback has ever led, Archie was hiding in the tunnel behind the end zone, nervously sneaking peeks at the field. Peyton sandwiched completions to Wayne around a 32-yard deep out to third-string tight end Bryan Fletcher. Suddenly it was first down at New England's 11, and two runs by rookie Joseph Addai set up a third-and-two at the three. The Patriots typically blitz in such situations, but Dungy reasoned that they'd be hesitant because they'd been burned while doing so--on a Manning fade to Harrison for a TD--during Indianapolis's 27--20 win in Foxborough, Mass., in November. He was right. The Patriots sat back. Addai took a handoff and blasted up the middle for the sweetest score any Colts fan has seen since Johnny Unitas hung up his high-tops.
Still, this epic wasn't finished until Brady, with 24 seconds to go and the ball at the Indy 45, zipped a pass over the middle toward tight end Benjamin Watson. Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson saw it like a neon light on South Beach. He raced in to make the interception that sent a choked-up coach and his jacked-up players to Miami.
Long after the confetti-laced celebration on the field, Dungy retreated to the dressing area and let his emotions flow. He talked of the inspiration he'd derived from James's memory and from the other parents of suicide victims whom he has befriended in the wake of his son's death. And he recalled the goodbye hug he had gotten from Lauren as he prepared to leave for the Dome that afternoon.
"I want a blowout," she'd said, to which her husband replied, "It's probably not gonna be that way. It's gonna be a nail-biter." Then she clutched him tight and whispered, "No matter what happens, no matter what you do, I support you."
On this landmark day, Lauren Dungy had more company than she could have known--most notably from a locker room full of players whose leader refused to let them wilt. And really, why should they have? It was their time.
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