- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS — Come playoff time, Peyton Manning carves up Denver’s defense like so much boneless turkey.

Indianapolis’ record-breaking quarterback blistered the Broncos for 360 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone as the Colts cruised to a 49-24 wild-card victory over the Broncos yesterday in front of a loud, blue-clad sellout crowd at RCA Dome.

Manning’s final numbers (27-for-33, 457 yards, four touchdowns, 145.7 rating) weren’t quite as magnificent as in last year’s 41-10 wild-card pounding of Denver (22-for-27, 377 yards, five touchdowns, 158.3 rating). Still, they were plenty good enough to give AFC South champion Indianapolis a shot at revenge against New England on Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., where the Colts lost the conference championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champions last year.

“I played like an absolute dog there last year,” said Manning, who was picked off four times in that 24-14 loss to the Patriots. “They’re a great team, and they’re tough at home. We have a tough go ahead of us, but we have a shot, and that’s all you can ask for. … Just because you played well [during the season] doesn’t mean anything once you get in the playoffs except you’re capable of doing it.”

In a season in which he broke the NFL record with 49 touchdown passes, Manning’s excellence was so expected that he wasn’t asked about his individual performance in the postgame press conference. But the Broncos, who only had to face Manning for a series in last week’s finale, were left awestruck.

“This is the best offense that I’ve ever played against,” 12-year veteran safety John Lynch said. “I’ve never been in a game where so much has felt, like, almost hopeless.”

Manning’s 457 yards were second in playoff history to the 489 Bernie Kosar racked up for Cleveland in a 1986 overtime victory against the New York Jets, but Kosar threw nearly twice as many passes, 64, to set that mark.

“Peyton was in a zone,” said Reggie Wayne, who was on the receiving end of two of Manning’s touchdowns.

Nearly half of Manning’s completions and yards went to Wayne, who tormented Broncos rookie cornerback Roc Alexander for most of his 221 yards — third in playoff history — and 10 catches.

“Any time one of our guys has the third corner, we like that matchup, and it happened to be Reggie today,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said.

Before the game, some of Denver’s defensive players had questioned the toughness of Indianapolis’ receivers, but on the fast artificial turf yesterday, the Broncos usually couldn’t get close enough to Manning’s targets to dish out much punishment.

“Maybe we need somebody to do that every week to challenge our guys,” Dungy said. “I was proud of how our guys handled that. They know they’re a tough group. They don’t have to talk about it.”

The Colts drove 76 and 87 yards, respectively, to the end zone on their second and third series, and after one quarter they led 14-0 and Manning had 156 yards. Cornerback Kelly Herndon kept the deficit there by intercepting Manning in the end zone to ruin Indianapolis’ fourth possession, but that was like sticking a finger in a collapsing dike.

After focusing much of the game on Wayne’s mismatch with Alexander, Manning found tight end Dallas Clark between three Broncos for a 19-yard touchdown that made it 21-0 with 8:11 to play in the half. And top wideout Marvin Harrison, covered by fellow perennial Pro Bowl pick Champ Bailey, still didn’t have a catch.

“We wanted to start out fast, and that’s what we did,” Wayne said. “[The Broncos defenders] were pretty subdued. We jumped out so fast that there really wasn’t much time to say anything.”

After a Denver field goal, Wayne broke tackle attempts by Alexander and Herndon and raced 35 yards to the end zone. Manning went over 300 yards on his next completion, a 17-yarder to Harrison, and finished off a 75-yard march with his first sneak in five years with six seconds left in the half for a 35-3 advantage.

“We probably played as good a first half as we’ve played,” Dungy said.

Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer put the outcome in the best perspective.

“If Peyton plays as well as he did [yesterday] throughout the playoffs, they’ll be tough to beat,” Plummer said.

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