INDIANAPOLIS** – In a very real sense, it couldn't have happened any other way.
At least that's how Tony Dungy saw it.
This was late in the evening of January 21, 2007, and Dungy – in his fifth season as the Colts' head coach -- stood on a podium that suddenly had appeared on the turf at the RCA Dome.
He spoke of what had just transpired on that same field.
What had transpired was a 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, a victory that not only put the Colts in their first Super Bowl in 36 years, but one that came in circumstances memorable and dramatic enough that perspective was needed.
As usual, Dungy provided it.
"It's just fitting," Dungy said. "Our team went the hard way the whole year."
How hard were the final steps along the way?
The opponent was the Patriots, a team that beat the Colts twice in the playoffs in the previous three seasons – in the AFC Championship Game following the 2003 season and in an AFC Divisional Playoff following the 2004 season.
The opposing quarterback was Tom Brady, a quarterback who had led the Patriots to Super Bowl titles in previous seasons.
And then came the first half.
The Patriots took a 21-3 lead, and still led 21-6 at halftime. But the Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning turned in the largest come-from-behind victory in AFC Championship Game history, outscoring New England, 35-13 over the final two and a half quarters to qualify for their third Super Bowl.
"This is about the highest high right now, but there's still one more high to come," Colts center Jeff Saturday said afterward. "But this one, coming the way it did, you couldn't have written a better ending, really.
"I'm happy for Peyton. To have him do it like this, yeah, it makes it doubly satisfying."
The victory also made Dungy – along with Chicago Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith – one of the first two African-American head coaches in the Super Bowl.
It means a lot," Dungy said. "I'm very proud to be representing African-Americans. I'm very proud of Lovie."
Early on, little went right for the Colts.
The Patriots took a 7-0 lead when offensive lineman Logan Mankins recovered a fumble in the end zone, and by the time cornerback Asante Samuel returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown 5:35 into the second quarter, New England led, 21-3.
The Colts inched back into the game with a 26-yard field goal by kicker Adam Vinatieri with seven seconds remaining in the second quarter, and throughout the second quarter, Dungy kept repeating a mantra uttered the previous night by Saturday.
Saturday, the leader of the offensive line, had spoken to the team at a team meeting the night before, and his message was simple.
"This is our time," he told his teammates. "We've got to make it happen."
With the Colts trailing and the Patriots maintaining momentum throughout the first half, Dungy later said he thought of Saturday's words. He walked the sideline, telling the players, "It's still our time. We have plenty of time left."
As it turned out, he was right.
Manning led the Colts on a 14-play, 76-yard drive to start the second half, and his one-yard sneak made it 21-13 with 8:13 remaining in the third quarter. One series later, the Colts drove 76 yards again, this time using six plays and pulling to within two with a 1-yard pass from Manning to defensive tackle Dan Klecko.
A two-point conversion pass to wide receiver Marvin Harrison tied it, 21-21.
The drama was just beginning.
After Brady passed six yards to Jabar Gaffney to make it 28-21, New England, the Colts drove 67 yards on seven plays, tying it again when Saturday recovered a fumble by running back Dominic Rhodes in the end zone. The Patriots took a three-point lead on a 28-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, and after Vinatieri tied it with a 36-yard field goal, Gostkowski' 43-yard field goal made it 34-31, New England. There were less than four minutes left in the game.
Manning then pieced together a history-making drive to give the Colts the lead.
He completed an 11-yard pass to Reggie Wayne, then a 32-yard pass to tight end Bryan Fletcher, and another pass to Wayne took the Colts deep into New England territory.
From the Patriots 11, the Colts called three consecutive running plays.
On the third, running back Joseph Addai's 3-yard run gave the Colts their first lead of the day with a minute remaining.
The Patriots had a final chance, but after two first downs took the ball to the Colts 45 with 24 seconds remaining, cornerback Marlin Jackson stepped in front of tight end Benjamin Watson. His interception clinched the dramatic comeback and the Super Bowl appearance.
During the Patriots' final drive, Manning was on the sideline with his head down.
"I said a little prayer on that last drive," said Manning, who directed the Colts to 455 yards total offense and scores on six of their final eight drives. "I don't know if you're supposed to pray for stuff like that, but I said a little prayer."
But while his prayer was answered, and while the common storyline after the game was Manning and the Colts making the Super Bowl after years of playoff losses, Manning said the victory over the Patriots wasn't about history, or vindication or anything along those lines.
"Some of that stuff is a little deep for me," Manning said. "I just wanted to do my job and do my job well. I didn't think I needed to be super. I just needed to be good. . . . I don't get into the monkey (off his back) and vindication – I don't play that card.
"It's always nice when you can take the hard work and put it to good use and get the win."
And if Manning was about modesty afterward, there were others to provide perspective for what the victory meant to the team.
"This is one of the greatest games ever played in the history of football," Colts safety Bob Sanders said. "I'm sure a lot of people thought it was over. Just the way we fought back as a team, believing in each other and never letting each other down . . .