- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

BALTIMORE — This is why the Indianapolis Colts signed Super Bowl XXXVI and XXXVIII hero Adam Vinatieri away from their nemeses, the New England Patriots.

On a day when Peyton Manning, the Colts’ perennial All-Pro quarterback, was as off-target as Shaquille O’Neal from the foul line, Vinatieri kicked five field goals to give the visiting Colts a 15-6 victory over the favored Baltimore Ravens yesterday. Indianapolis advances to next Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the winner of today’s game between the Patriots and the top-seeded San Diego Chargers.

“Adam has been sensational all year,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said of Vinatieri, who became the most prolific field goal kicker in playoff history with 34. “On the 51-yarder [which hit the crossbar and bounced over in the second quarter], I asked him, ‘Are we close enough? Adam was very matter of fact. ‘We’ve got it. We’re in good shape.’ You feel like you’re going to make everything when he goes out there.”

There was little such faith in the Colts’ defense heading into the playoffs. Indianapolis this season ranked 21st overall and last against the run. But in playoff wins the last two weeks over Kansas City and Baltimore, respectively, the unit has allowed just 407 yards, 14 points and allowed a first down conversion on just three of 22 third downs. Yesterday, the Colts outperformed the Ravens’ top-ranked defense.

“Defense wins championships, offense scores points and right now we’re playing great defense,” said cornerback Nick Harper, whose interception at the Indianapolis 32 with 10:25 left killed Baltimore’s last serious threat.

“Our defense answered the challenge,” Dungy said. “[Defensive tackle] Booger McFarland and I were talking that this was kind of a throwback game. We used to win a lot of games this way [in Tampa Bay]”.

The Buccaneers, whom Dungy guided to the playoffs four times from 1996-2001, never had a quarterback near Manning’s class. But yesterday, the Ravens made Manning look like Trent Dilfer or Shaun King. Manning passed for just 170 yards and didn’t produce a touchdown while throwing two interceptions, giving him five this postseason.

“They’re every bit as good as advertised on defense,” said Manning, whose 39.6 passer rating was the worst of his nine-year career in a victory. “I’m not sure we’ve won one before without [a touchdown]. I didn’t sleep real well all week. I expected the game to be exactly like this. I knew it was going to be tough sledding. It’s frustrating … to settle for field goals, but we saw how our defense was playing early and we thought that would be enough if we got enough of ‘em.”

The Ravens only got two, in part because they turned the ball over four times with Harper’s interception and that of rookie safety Antoine Bethea at the Indianapolis 1-yard line counting as the real killers.

“You can’t turn the ball over the way we did,” lamented Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team hasn’t won a playoff game since 2001.

“We just didn’t play well today, you can’t sugar-coat it,” said receiver Derrick Mason. “Anytime you hold that offense to 15 points, you should be able to win and we didn’t.”

Leading 9-3 at halftime despite surprisingly being outgained 126-117, Indianapolis drove 54 yards to the Baltimore 29-yard line. But Manning missed receiver Reggie Wayne on third down. Vinatieri booted his fourth field goal, a 48-yarder.

When the Ravens got the ball back, Steve McNair, Manning’s 2003 co-NFL MVP, checked down to Mark Clayton short of the first-down marker, dropping the Ravens to 0-for-6 on third down tight end Todd Heap’s leaping catch soon gave Baltimore a first down at the Indianapolis 44.

Running back Jamal Lewis rumbled 13 with a screen. Two penalties forced the Ravens to settle for Matt Stover’s 51-yard field goal with 13:03 to go. Safety Ed Reed then picked off a Manning bomb. McNair found Clayton for 21 on third-and-10, but on the subsequent third-and-9, Harper jumped the pass for Mason.

After an exchange of punts, Dominic Rhodes ran for one first down before Manning threaded the needle to tight end Dallas Clark. His best pass of the day netted 14 yards on third-and-5. By the time Vinatieri hit from 26 yards to make it 15-6 just 23 seconds remained.

“That third-down conversion to Dallas, Cory Ivy could not have had better coverage,” Manning said. “I tried to throw the ball to where he couldn’t get his hands on it. It was in the right spot. That was the biggest third-down conversion we’ve had in some time.”

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