Archie Manning stood on the edge of the Colts' locker room Sunday night, players acknowledging him with nods and handshakes and weary smiles, and he was reminded of Big Chevy. Fifteen years ago, in a game that only fathers and diehards would recall, Peyton Manning rallied the Tennessee Volunteers from a 15-point deficit at Kentucky on a day when you could smell an upset in the air. As Archie waited for his son outside the locker room after that game, he was approached by a Vols offensive lineman named Jeff Smith, who weighed 305 pounds—hence the name Big Chevy. "Mr. Manning," Big Chevy told Archie, "he just wouldn't let us lose." For all the praise that has been heaped on Peyton Manning in the past decade-and-a-half, that tribute somehow sticks to the ribs. "I think about it a lot," Archie said, "on nights like this."
Late second quarter, down 11 points, leaks in the offensive line, blitzers in the backfield, the No. 1 receiver smothered, the running game unreliable, the Super Bowl at stake and the mood in the Manning suite at Lucas Oil Stadium "tense," said Peyton's older brother, Cooper, "very tense." Down on the field Peyton flashed back to another AFC Championship Game, three years ago, when Indy trailed the Patriots by 18 at the same point. Since that decisive pivot from the brink, the Colts have developed a taste for suspense. This season they won seven games in which they were trailing in the fourth quarter. Maybe that's why they didn't panic on Sunday in the AFC title game against the Jets—or maybe it's because, as linebacker Clint Session pointed out, "we've got Peyton Manning."
It's been only three years since Manning had to endure the most tired refrain in sports: Can he win the big one? The idea is laughable now. The better question after Indy's 30--17 victory is, Can he lose it? Manning prepared for his latest big one by studying a game between the Colts and the Ravens from 2005, when Jets coach Rex Ryan was Baltimore's defensive coordinator. But Manning was taken aback on Sunday when the Jets came out in their nickel package instead of their base 3--4 and stayed with five, six or even seven defensive backs for much of the game. Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore kept calling running plays to counter the extra DBs, but Manning repeatedly switched to passes. By the time he hit rookie receiver Austin Collie on a sublime 46-yard seam route with 1:19 left in the first half—Collie was sandwiched between two Jets defenders, so the pass had to be high enough to clear Drew Coleman's fingertips, low enough for Collie to box out Kerry Rhodes—it became apparent why Manning was calling his own number. He couldn't miss, and he knew it.
"You're hot," Moore told his quarterback. "Keep going." Manning treated the NFL's No. 1 pass defense like a scout team, throwing for 377 yards and tossing three touchdowns. The last one—in which he stuck the ball in running back Joseph Addai's gut, pulled it out and then fired it to tight end Dallas Clark on a post route 3½ minutes into the fourth quarter—even brought Manning's usually impassive little brother to his feet.
For the third time in four years a Manning is in the Super Bowl. Two years ago Eli won it for the Giants and Peyton was fist-pumping in a suite at University of Phoenix Stadium. Then he headed down to the locker room to deconstruct his brother's game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. On Sunday, Eli was the one in the suite, then down in the Colts' locker room, telling Peyton, "I'm really proud of you." Before Peyton could trade his towel for a suit, the two were reenacting a third-and-nine play in the fourth quarter, when Peyton pump-faked to receiver Pierre Garçon, let him break deep and found him for a 23-yard gain that set up the clinching field goal. "I saw Peyton give Garçon a little extra signal," Eli said, "so I had a feeling he would go to him there."
Garçon, who caught all of four passes last season, and Collie, who wasn't even in the NFL yet, combined for 18 receptions and 274 yards, as Reggie Wayne played decoy with shutdown corner Darrelle Revis. After the game Garçon draped himself in the Haitian flag—his parents were born in Haiti, and several members of his extended family were victims of last week's earthquake—while Wayne wore the white construction helmet he modeled on the first day of training camp, when he arrived in a dump truck. On the side of the helmet were the words SUPER BOWL UNDER CONSTRUCTION. With a tip of the brim Wayne said, "The way we came in is the way we're going to leave."
When the Colts went to Miami three years ago and won, they were defined by their smooth receivers and commercial-friendly quarterback. They return to South Florida with a hard-hat defense that has allowed only 20 points in the playoffs and held the Jets scoreless in the second half. The Colts' D is perpetually underrated, obscured by Manning's prodigious shadow, but this season the unit has been impossible to ignore. With more size than usual—starting tackles Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir both weigh in at more than 310 pounds—and as much speed as ever, Indianapolis tied for second in the NFL in scoring defense through 14 games, when they stopped trying.
The Jets had made it this far because they could run the ball and stop the pass, but against Indy they did neither. New York's No. 1--ranked rushing offense gained just 86 yards thanks to a front-seven that Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden calls "arguably the fastest in the NFL." By throwing the ball 31 times, New York failed to keep the clock moving in the second half, thus giving Manning too many turns.
When the game was over, Manning was presented with the Lamar Hunt Trophy, given to the AFC champions, and he looked at it as though he were being handed a pair of used socks. Three years ago Indy players danced around that trophy, having proved at long last that they could vanquish the Patriots. "It felt better than the Super Bowl," defensive end Dwight Freeney remembers. This time around the Colts acted as if they'd just beaten the Jaguars in September. "The word of the day," Manning said, "was grind." Their greatest satisfaction, it seemed, was in finally silencing Ryan's bluster. Hayden, who sealed the win with an interception with 2:11 to play, revealed that rookie coach Jim Caldwell told the team during the week, "We know we can't outtalk them. But we can outplay them." The Colts have given their all 16 times this season—and are 16--0 in those games. Another win, and they'll go down as one of the best teams ever.
They realize, though, that few outside of Indiana will be pulling for them. They don't have a civic cause like the Saints, and they aren't as entertaining at press conferences as the Jets. But in fact the Colts rely on an inordinate number of players who were long shots just to be in the league. They have undrafted free agents starting at cornerback, safety, linebacker, the defensive line and three O-line positions. The face of the franchise is Manning, of course, but the racing heart belongs to guys like Kyle DeVan, a former Jets practice-squad player who was substitute teaching at Vacaville High in Northern California last year. DeVan, 24, assumed he was finished with football, but as he watched the Vacaville wrestling team sweat out afternoon practices on the mat, he decided, "I'm too young to quit." So he loaded up his truck and signed with the Boise Burn of Arena Football League2, and on Feb. 7 he'll be the starting right guard in the Super Bowl.