INDIANAPOLIS, Jan. 9 -- It was supposed to be more difficult for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning this time. After Manning ripped Denver in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Broncos upgraded their secondary by signing veteran safety John Lynch and trading tailback Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.
Despite the all-star additions, the Broncos' defense remained no match for Manning, who all but won the game with a prolific first half to lead Indianapolis to the conference semifinals, 49-24, before 56,609 at the RCA Dome. Manning threw for 360 yards, the most in a half in the playoffs since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, with three touchdowns on 21-for-27 passing before intermission.
Colts' Reggie Wayne (221 receiving yards), comes up with one of his 10 catches in front of Roc Alexander. "We thought we had a good matchup over there," Coach Tony Dungy said.
(Darron Cummings -- AP)
The Colts led 35-3 at halftime, and Manning finished with 457 yards passing, the second-most in an NFL playoff game. Cleveland's Bernie Kosar threw for 489 yards in a 23-20 overtime victory over the New York Jets in 1986.
The Colts (13-4) advanced to play the New England Patriots, the Super Bowl champion, next Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. The Broncos (10-7) lost their third consecutive playoff game and haven't won in the postseason since Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway played his last game, a 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII on Jan. 31, 1999.
"It's a win in round one," Manning said. "We would have liked to have had a bye and would have liked to have had a home game in round two, but there are too many good teams in the AFC this year."
The Colts are playing as well as any of the other three AFC teams remaining in the playoffs. Last year, Manning won for the first time in the playoffs (he was 0-3 during the postseason in his first five NFL seasons), beating the Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, before losing to the Patriots, 24-14, in the AFC championship game. Manning threw four interceptions and only one touchdown in the loss to New England.
"Last year, everybody was talking about winning a playoff game, and we beat Denver and Kansas City and lost to New England, and I didn't feel any better," Manning said. "We want to win the whole thing. That's what I want to do. Obviously, individually, I've accomplished a lot, but I haven't been to the Super Bowl since I've been the quarterback here. We've got a shot and that's all you can ask for."
The Colts will go into the New England game with a lot of momentum offensively. After having one of the greatest regular seasons by an NFL quarterback, Manning completed 27 of 33 passes, including all six attempts in the second half. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne did most of the damage, catching 10 passes for 221 yards -- the third-highest total in playoffs history -- and two touchdowns.
"They went and got Champ Bailey, and we knew the reason they got him -- to blitz a lot and play man coverage," Colts Coach Tony Dungy said. "We thought we had a good matchup over there, and we took advantage of it with Reggie."
Every time Manning lined up in the shotgun against the Broncos on Sunday, he saw rookie cornerback Roc Alexander opposite Wayne. With the Broncos focusing on Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison and slot receiver Brandon Stokley, Manning threw to Wayne early and often.
"It's nothing against Alexander," Manning said. "Reggie has had an outstanding season all year long. Whoever's been guarding Reggie is always in for a challenge. . . . I've always said that Marvin, because of who he is, can dictate a lot of defenses. Teams will always send their top cover corner to his side, they'll cheat a safety that way."
Alexander, an undrafted rookie from Washington, covered Wayne on the left side on nearly every play. Bailey, who was named a starter in the Pro Bowl, covered Harrison on the right side, and cornerback Kelly Herndon defended Stokley in the slot.
Wayne, in his fourth season, caught Manning's first four completions and had five catches for 20 yards or longer. Even when Manning didn't throw the ball to Wayne, the Broncos were rolling coverage to Harrison. Leading 14-0 early in the second quarter, the Colts picked up a first down on Manning's 21-yard pass to Stokley to the Broncos 19.
On the next play, the Broncos played a two-deep zone, and safety Kenoy Kennedy moved to the right to help Bailey cover Harrison. Manning lofted a pass down the middle of the field for tight end Dallas Clark, who easily scored a touchdown that put the Colts ahead, 21-0, with 8 minutes 11 seconds left in the first half.
"The safety was so wide that Dallas ran down the middle of the field, and there was nobody there to cover him," Manning said.
During the Colts' next possession, the Broncos tried to play press coverage against Wayne. But after catching a screen pass, Wayne broke attempted tackles by Alexander and Herndon and ran down the left sideline for a 35-yard touchdown, making it 28-3 with 4:29 left in the first half.
"The only way to slow them down was to keep them impatient," Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan said. "But Peyton really got in a groove, and we paid the price for it."