The Colts, the Patriots and the Really Big One
by Tony Basilio
There are eight minutes to go in the Colts-Pats AFC Title Game as I write this. You'll know the result as you read this. At this point, I'm proclaiming that it doesn't really matter who wins. The Patriots may yet win the battle but Peyton Manning has already won the war.
This game was about keeping his credibility as a spokesman for the winning way, and he has survived. He has also just connected with Dallas Clark down to the Pats 25. There goes Rhodes, and now the Colts are 20 yards away from Manning finally getting the Florida monkey off his back. Yes. It's all about Florida, even as Miami's (of Florida) Reggie Wayne just bobbled Manning's out route. It's third and five and they run the ball? So Adam Vinatieri, who has never missed in the playoffs, adds a 35-yarder and we're tied.
The ghost has been exorcised. Manning--inferior coaching surrounding him or not--has proven once and for all he can get it done when it matters. You've heard the critics coming into the AFC title game: "Manning has never won anything in his career. Not in high school, not in college, and not in the pros." If you listen to any sports radio, no doubt you heard that tired refrain leading up to the battle with New England. It's not entirely true, but it sounds good. The reason obviously is that Manning led the Vols to the '97 SEC Championship. You remember, the victory over Auburn in the Dome. So why does this fact get lost in the Super Bowl shuffle? You got it. Florida.
Manning couldn't beat Florida during his days at UT. But who can anymore? The Gators are the current holders of the national championships in both football and basketball. It's the first time one school has shared that distinction.
Three minutes, 49 seconds left in the game and a rookie kicker from Memphis, yes Memphis, just put the Pats up 34-31. Now Manning officially has no more excuses. The ball is in his hands. This is his defining moment. Can he get it done? Or will he succumb to the Patriots and their wonderful quarterback Tom Brady, who's surrounded by marginal talent on offense.
The Patriots' receiving corps consists of a couple of corpses. That they're retreads from (yeah, here it comes) Florida only make it smart that much more. One of them is Jabar Gaffney, who was cut twice before hooking on with the Pats early in the season. Yes that Jabar Gaffney, the one who caught and dropped the winning touchdown versus UT in 2000 in Neyland Stadium. Manning was just forced to throw it away. Third down and 10 from the 20 with 3:41 left in the game. Pass incomplete. Fourth down and 10. Manning's pass knocked down by Ray Mickens. A really horrible series for Manning punctuated by a brutal pass to Dallas Clark on first down.
The Patriots just broke the huddle with 13 guys. It's first and 15 for the Pats at their own 35 with 3:22 left. Reche Caldwell just caught a ball for a hard seven-yard gain. It's second and eight. Crowd is on their feet. Big Ben Watson from Georgia just caught an out for five. It's third and three. Time-out Colts. They have one left. Any other SEC retreads to torment Manning with? Patrick Pass still on the roster? Robert Edwards? Any Florida running backs? Third down and three. The pass was almost intercepted at mid-field by Bob Sanders. Manning is going to get it back!
Patriots punt. Ball bounces into the end zone. Manning has one timeout, 2:30 to work with and 80 yards to go for the lead or the tie.
First down and 10 from the Patriots 11! Addai to the seven. Manning hands to Addai for a five-yard gain. Third down and two upcoming. Will Manning put it up? Win, lose or draw. Peyton has found his place. And it's not next to A-Rod's house in the choker's subdivision (good line from Boomer Esiason at halftime when the Colts trailed 21-6). Addai on a draw... touchdown Colts! And the Colts have taken the lead! Now it's a four-point game. If his defense can hold, Manning goes to the Super Bowl. If not, he led his team to 32 second half points, proving once and for all that he is in fact a big game player, not a choker.
Now that the hurdle has been cleared, prepare for nothing but talk about Manning's ability (or lack thereof) to win the Really Big One. Awaiting the Colts are the Chicago Bears, who looked invincible in hammering the Saints in the NFC Title game. The media will build up the battle as one pitting the first two African-American head coaches in NFL history to make it to the Super Bowl, but we know the deal.
This is UT versus Florida all over again. The Bears are led by hated Gator Rex Grossman. Here's hoping Manning can win it. If he doesn't, he's still a winner. But losing to the Bears would mean the Gators would lay claim to the Super Bowl as well as their two major college titles. Concurrently! From where I sit, that's too much for Rocky Top to take. Come on Manning, win the Really Big One, Super Bowl XLI.
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.