INDIANAPOLIS – Already a savvy veteran and NFL megastar, Peyton Manning understood the issue.
Not that he didn't think it was a bit overblown.
This was the post-season following the 2003 NFL regular season, and Manning – then in his sixth season as the Colts' starting quarterback – said at the time he well understood the pre-game theme on which many media and observers were focused.
The Colts, after all, hadn't won a playoff game in eight seasons.
That changed in early January 2004.
And it changed in a way that was not only big and memorable, but bordered at times on offensive perfection – a 41-10 first-round playoff victory over the Denver Broncos in front of a sold-out raucous crowd at the RCA Dome that witnessed the first home playoff victory in Indianapolis Colts history.
“It was awesome from the sideline,” Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said.
How awesome? How impressive?
How close to perfection – both offensive and defensively?
The Colts, who had lost to the Broncos 31-17 in a critical late-season game at the RCA Dome two weeks before – a game that cost the Colts the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs – scored quickly, and often, dominating Denver throughout.
The superlatives were many.
The Colts led 31-3 at halftime. Denver didn't score a touchdown until 7:04 remained in the game. Indianapolis' defense held Broncos running back Clinton Portis to 68 yards on 17 carries – well below his seasonal average of 122 yards a game – and the unit also harassed Denver quarterback Jake Plummer throughout, intercepting him twice.
And then there was Manning's performance.
Manning spent the week answering questions about past post-seasons, but also during that week he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player for the first time in his career, earning the honor with Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair.
On this Sunday in early January 2004, he played like an MVP.
He completed 22 of 26 passes for 377 yards. He threw five touchdown passes. His passer rating was 158.3, perfect by NFL standards.
And in the first half, with the Colts dominating early and essentially clinching a second-round trip to Kansas City by the end of the second quarter, Manning was even more impressive statistically, completing 16 of 18 passes for 327 yards and four touchdowns.
Two touchdowns went to wide receiver Marvin Harrison, one for 46 yards and another for 23. On the 46-yarder Harrison caught the ball on a skinny post, fell to the turf, and when he got up without being touched by any of the surrounding Broncos defenders, he ran into the end zone for the first post-season touchdown of his career.
“When I was on the ground, I didn't feel anyone touch me,” Harrison told CBSSports.com afterward. “I was trying to get up slowly, so I wouldn't get knocked in the head. I got up and ran.”
Wide receiver Brandon Stokley also caught two touchdowns, including an 87-yarder near the end of the first half that gave Indianapolis a 28-point lead.
The Colts' defense, at the same time, held the Broncos to 137 first-half yards, and by the time the Broncos got a second-half touchdown and 185 second-half yards, the outcome was long since decided, and the Colts' second-round trip West was long since clinched.
“This was the 60-minute game,” Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, then in his second season, said, with veteran linebacker Marcus Washington adding, “This is the one we've been looking for. We got it today.”
The balanced performance was all the more striking coming as it did in the wake of the loss to Denver two weeks before, a game in which the Broncos held Indianapolis to 37 offensive plays and just over 15 minutes possession time. Manning said afterward little went right for the Colts in the first meeting between the teams, and joked that that was good, because it meant the Broncos had seen little of the Colts' offense.
He also joked that it had taken only about 15 minutes to watch film of the game, so little had the offense played.
“Last time, we didn't play a whole lot, so they really didn't get to see us,” Manning told the Indianapolis Star, and CBS Sports.com quoted him saying, “I didn't know what to study.”
The game not only was the Colts' first home post-season victory in the Indianapolis era, it was their first home playoff victory as a franchise since 1970. And afterward, players celebrated with a crowd that was deafening and raucous throughout, moving along the stadium wall and acknowledging the fans.
“Our crowd has been great all season,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “We just felt we owed them something, to go out and shake some hands and thank them.”
Afterward, as it had been before, the talk was about Manning.
“This was a defining moment for Peyton, but really, he's had defining moments before and he's going to have so many more,” Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer Jim Irsay told the Indianapolis Star. “But it was obviously a huge performance, for Peyton and the entire organization.”
Said Dungy, “I hope people think this is a big game, because I've heard about him not being able to win big games. We thought it was big if no one else did.”
Manning, for his part, said despite the focus and despite the game's importance, there was little different about preparation or mindset beforehand.
“I was just glad to have another playoff opportunity, that we weren't an 8-8 team and I was sitting at home,” Manning told the New York Times. “The 0-3 thing going in the playoffs was just a fact, I didn't hide from it. . . .
“I think my teammates looked at me to see if I was tight, but I was very loose,” he added. “I knew being tight wasn't going to help anything. I was aware that we could be in here talking about not winning a playoff game, but I was motivated to keep that from happening.”