INDIANAPOLIS** – The scenario surprised no one.
Not the Colts, and not those who had been observing them throughout a remarkable, dramatic, come-from-behind season – and it likely didn't surprise the fans, either.
So, the stage was high-profile . . .
And the stakes were high . . .
So, the Colts faced an early deficit . . .
None of that much mattered to the Colts, players and coaches said afterward. They had, after all, been here before – often – throughout the 2009 season.
Peyton Manning, earlier in the month named the Associated Press' Most Valuable Player for the fourth time, passed for three touchdowns as the Colts rallied from an 11-point deficit to beat the New York Jets, 30-17, in the AFC Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It's very special," Manning said afterward.
What it wasn't, really, was particularly unusual.
The Colts, despite winning their first 14 regular-season games, had had to rally often throughout the season, setting an NFL record by rallying to win seven times in the fourth quarter. During one five-game stretch in November, the Colts rallied in the fourth quarter to win each game.
Against the Jets, the deficit came earlier.
And this time, the Colts didn't wait until the fourth period to rally, instead cutting into the lead late in the second quarter and turning the game's momentum with a dominant third-quarter performance against one of the NFL's elite defenses.
Manning threw three touchdown passes during that span.
"What a night Peyton had, it was just incredible," Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer Jim Irsay said afterward. "It's a total team effort, but obviously Peyton had to get us going."
Which he obviously did.
The Jets, who won back-to-back road playoff games to advance to the title game as a wild card, took a 17-6 lead when kicker Jay Feely kicked a 48-yard field goal with 2:11 remaining in the first half.
Manning, sacked twice by the Jets' top-ranked defense in the first quarter, wasn't sacked again, and with the defense shutting out the Jets in the second half, Manning finished one of the most memorable performances of a memorable career having completed 26 of 39 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
Manning threw touchdown passes on three of four possessions after Feely's field goal:
*A 16-yard touchdown pass to Austin Collie with 1:13 remaining in the second quarter. That made it 17-13, Jets.
*A four-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter. That made it 20-17, Colts.
*A 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark with 8:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. That made it 27-17, Colts.
The celebration began shortly after that.
"It's great to win this championship here at home in front of the best fans in the world," Manning said. "We have a bunch of guys that have worked hard all season and been very humble. We were very humble this week.
"We…went to work this week and came out and won the game."
The Super Bowl appearance was the second for the Colts since Irsay took over as sole owner in 1997. The Colts during the decade of the 2000s won more games than any franchise in a decade in NFL history, and set an NFL record by winning at least 12 games in seven consecutive seasons.
The Colts in 2008-09 set an NFL record by winning 23 consecutive regular-season games.
"This is another incredibly big step in the competing with history," Irsay said. "We started competing with history right around the mid-part of the decade. This is deeply fulfilling. We know we have another game to go, but it's such an incredible accomplishment to do it the way we did – to win 14 (regular-season games), then to use that advantage to get ready to try to do everything we can to win a World Championship and get to the Super Bowl."
The victory over the Jets was about more than a third-quarter rally, about more than Manning.
Garcon, a second-year veteran, caught 11 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, and Collie – a rookie – caught seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. The Colts' defense, overlooked by many in the week leading to the game, held the Jets to 86 yards rushing on 29 carries. The Jets led the NFL in rushing during the regular season, averaging 172.2 yards per game in the regular season and 170 in two playoff games, and the performance was a satisfying one coming against the NFL's top-ranked defense.
"We're pros, and we know we're good, too," Colts defensive end Robert Mathis said.
As much as anything, Colts President Bill Polian said afterward, it was about the Colts winning their way.
"You bet it was," Polian said. "They are a very good football team. . . . This is the way we played all year. It's the way Jim designed it, and it's the way we want to play. If you look back on our games with Baltimore when (Jets Head Coach) Rex (Ryan) was there (as defensive coordinator), it's going to seesaw back and forth. It's going to be a tight ball game. It's going to be field goals and ultimately somebody makes a play and you're able to win or lose the ballgame on big plays.
"That's the way it has been, and this game went the way we hoped it would, but it kind of went the way we thought it would."
After the Jets took their 17-6 lead, the defense held time and again. And with the Colts scoring on four of their next five possessions, the lead was 13 with 2:29 remaining. The scoring finished, and for the second time in four seasons, Indianapolis fans celebrated a trip to the Super Bowl.
"We don't ever get comfortable with this feeling," Colts tight end Dallas Clark said. "We know we have one game left, but it's been a special journey so far."