INDIANAPOLIS – Afterwards, Peyton Manning understated the obvious.
If you call doing so a mistake, it was one of the few he made all day – one of the few he made in the first two games of the 2003 post-season, actually.
This was mid-January, 2004. And a week after one of the most remarkable performances in Indianapolis Colts post-season history, the Colts' six-year veteran quarterback and the offense turned in something very close to the previous week's game.
In some ways, it may have surpassed it.
Manning, two weeks removed from being awarded the first of four Associated Press National Football League Most Valuable Player Awards, turned in a second consecutive reason-defying post-season performance in a 38-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
It bordered on perfect.
And that was one reason it was memorable.
But to Manning and the Colts, what mattered was something else – that with the victory in front of a sold-out, Chiefs-crazy crowd, they came through again and again in high-pressure situations, and the result was a victory in a AFC Divisional Playoff game.
“I'm hot right now,” Manning said afterward. “We're hot as an offense.”
As understated mistakes go, this was a big one.
Well, yes, the Colts' offense was hot. Scorching. Even on a chilly Midwest January afternoon.
Manning, after throwing five touchdowns – four in the first half – in a one-sided home victory over Denver the week before, completed 22 of 30 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns against the Chiefs. The Colts took a 14-3 lead and three long early touchdown drives gave them a lead they never relinquished.
Manning, including the performance in a 41-10 victory over Denver the week before, exited Kansas City having 44 of 56 passes for 681 yards and eight touchdowns in two playoff games.
At the time, the Colts had scored on 13 of 17 total possessions, with 10 touchdown drives – three that ended in a field goal, one fumble and three that ended on downs or at the end of a half.
“Our offense has been in rhythm the last two weeks,” Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy told SI.com following the victory over Kansas City.
Another understatement, but Dungy added, “I don't know what more you can say about them. Obviously, Peyton is just playing phenomenal, making the checks, putting us in the right plays, making the clutch third-down plays. He's just been fantastic the last two weeks.”
Dungy, who had had a reputation as a defensive coach upon arriving in Indianapolis two seasons before, also talked about the confidence of the offense at the time.
“We've got a tremendous offensive team, and we feel like we're going to score points wherever we play every week,” Dungy said.
That included road venues, and even included Arrowhead Stadium.
While the Chiefs had gone 8-0 in the stadium that season en route to a 13-3 record and the AFC's No. 2 seed – and while many observers believed the Colts' no-huddle, check-with-me system would struggle in what was considered one of the NFL's loudest stadiums – Dungy said before the game he doubted it would hinder Indianapolis offensively.
The reason was the Colts' offense historically functioned well in loud environments. Dungy saw no reason it would be different, and from the start, he was right.
The Colts not only led 14-3 early, they scored on six of their eight possessions, with the only exceptions coming on clock-killing plays at the end of each half.
With Manning calling plays almost exclusively at the line of scrimmage, Indianapolis converted 8 of 11 third downs, did not commit an offensive penalty and produced 434 total yards.
“He is the master,” Chiefs defensive end Eric Hicks told SI.com. “It's obviously why he's the co-MVP (along with Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair). You have to take your hat off to him. That was an amazing performance.
“We just got our butts whipped. They took us behind the woodshed and just beat us.”
Said Chiefs Head Coach Dick Vermeil, “He doesn't throw an inaccurate ball. Every pass is where it should be."
The Colts' offensive performance maintained such a level that for a second consecutive week, punter Hunter Smith did not punt, and after three first-half Colts touchdowns, a 45-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt early in the second half pushed the Colts' lead to 24-10.
Priest Holmes' 1-yard touchdown cut the Colts' lead to seven, but Manning passed 19 yards to wide receiver
After Edgerrin James' 1-yard touchdown again pushed Indianapolis' lead to 14, 38-24, with just over five minutes elapsed in the fourth quarter, Holmes again scored on a 1-yard run to reduce Indianapolis' lead to a touchdown, 38-31.
With just under five minutes remaining, Vermeil opted against an onside kick. Manning and the Colts' offense held possession the final 4:14 to secure a trip to their first AFC Championship Game since the 1995 season.
“It has felt easy out there, and that's a great feeling to have,” Colts wide receiver Brandon Stokley, whose 29-yard touchdown reception opened the scoring, said.
“When it feels that easy, everything you do is right.”