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Manning, Colts face a familiar hurdle

WP: If there is a game that requires a day to be circled on the calendar, a practice largely forgotten in an NFL that now seems to favor parity over dynasties, it is Sunday night's AFC title game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts.
AFC Championship: Colts v Patriots
Once again, Tom Brady, right, and Peyton Manning will be meeting in the playoffs.Elsa / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

If there is a game that requires a day to be circled on the calendar, a practice largely forgotten in an NFL that now seems to favor parity over dynasties, it is Sunday night's AFC title game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts.

Over the past five years, no two teams have stalked one another more consistently or, on both team and individual levels, craved an elevated standing that only one could achieve more than the Patriots and the Colts. Since 2002, the Colts are 60-20. They are only the second team in NFL history to win 12 games in four consecutive years, but during that span have never played in the Super Bowl. The Patriots, meantime, are 59-21 since 2002, have won two Super Bowls and beaten the Colts on the way both times. The Patriots, of course, have won three Super Bowls, their first coming after the 2001 season.

"Now we're looking forward to Indianapolis," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said after New England's exhausting 24-21 victory over top-seeded San Diego in an AFC semifinal on Sunday. "We know each game gets bigger. Each opponent gets tougher, and that's what we're going to have to get ready for in Indy."

So it is that the Patriots and Colts -- both 12-4 and division winners -- clawed toward the Super Bowl by winning on the road this weekend -- the Colts defeated Baltimore 15-6 on Saturday -- only to find the other standing in the way yet again, anticipating a matchup long on history and motivation, both personally and globally, each defined by the other.

Not since the great battles between Steve Young and Troy Aikman have two quarterbacks in the league have been more defined by the other than the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Patriots' Tom Brady. For the past six years, Manning and Brady have circled one another, defined by their individual and team successes, but also by the outcome of their on-field confrontations.

Manning, through commercial endorsements as much as his prolific passing game, has quickly become perhaps the most recognizable face in the NFL, winning two most valuable player awards and, in his ninth year, is seventh all-time in touchdown passes.

But while Manning, at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, has racked up passing yards, individual awards and commercials, it is Brady who has developed the reputation for being the big winner, the clutch performer. He is 26-4 in games decided by six points or less. And Manning, 30, has never played in a Super Bowl, denied in the AFC championship (after the 2003 season) and divisional playoffs (after the 2004 season) by Brady's Patriots.

Brady and Manning. Manning and Brady. It seems to have always been this way. Brady's first NFL start, on Sept. 30, 2001, was against the Colts and was a 44-13 home victory that started a streak of six consecutive victories against Manning, including the playoffs.

For every impressive Manning stat -- he has won the last two meetings, including a 27-20 victory Nov. 5 at New England -- Brady, at 6-4, 225, has a trump card. Sunday will be the first time Manning has faced Brady at home in a playoff game and the Colts are 9-0 at the RCA Dome, but Brady is 8-0 in domed stadiums, including a 38-34 win Nov. 30, 2003, at Indianapolis.

This matchup figures to have a twist. While Brady, 29, silenced the Chargers by completing 11 of 18 passes in the fourth quarter, including a backbreaking 49-yard pass to Reche Caldwell with 2 minutes 42 seconds remaining that led to the winning field goal, neither he nor Manning enters Sunday on much of a high.

With three interceptions, Brady's passer rating Sunday was 57.6. "We were trying to throw quick stuff, and that wasn't working. We were trying to throw screens and that wasn't working," Brady said. "We were trying to pop runs and that wasn't working. We were just trying to do everything we could to move the ball positively forward, but we could never get into a rhythm."

Manning appeared rattled by the Ravens, completing just 15 of 30 passes for 170 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating was 39.6.

"We used to win this way a lot when I was [head coach] with the Bucs," Colts Coach Tony Dungy said. "I was talking to [defensive tackle] Booger McFarland on the sidelines and we were kind of reminiscing about that. It was 'Buc ball' out there in this game. We used to win all our games in Tampa this way."

But Tampa finally won a Super Bowl, after Dungy's departure. That's something the Colts have not done. A loss Sunday would make the Colts the only team in NFL history to achieve four consecutive 12-win seasons and not play for a championship. Only Indianapolis and the Dallas Cowboys have won 12 games in four consecutive seasons. But, during that time, Dallas won three Super Bowls.

All Indianapolis and Peyton Manning have to do to have a chance at their first championship is get past New England. And Tom Brady.