INDIANAPOLIS -- A couple hours after the Indianapolis Colts scored a critical touchdown on the sort of precise drive that matches them against both a defense and the first-half clock, Cooper Manning held court in earshot of his brother.
Asked about Peyton Manning’s ability to mount the sort of march that deflates an opponent and stops short of setting off a ceremony marking the game’s official momentum change, Cooper Manning shrugged and talked louder.
“The last two minutes?” Cooper Manning said, turning so his voice would carry far enough to be overheard by his target. “One time when he was playing basketball, he was a sophomore, and we had less than two minutes, like 1:08. And the other team is counting, 'Eight, seven, six' but it was a minute eight. Peyton threw it the length of the court and hit the top of the shot clock, and so they got the ball.
“So inside two minutes, I’ve always felt he panics.”
That set off a good round of laughs in the Colts' locker room, where a 30-17 win over the New York Jets and the AFC Championship was in hand. With those things, a trip to south Florida for Super Bowl XLIV had been secured.
Manning’s poise when the clock ticks loudest has improved exponentially since that day he played for Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans against Rapides.
This season he’s engineered drives at the end of the first half that produced 77 points -- as many as Buffalo, Cleveland or St. Louis, scored in any quarter all season.
Sunday, when the Colts offense got the ball at its own 20-yard line with 2:11 on the clock and a timeout to go, a jam-packed Lucas Oil Stadium and a full press box expected production.
Manning overthrew Dallas Clark, then threaded three passes to Austin Collie get what he wanted:
Eighteen yards to the rookie from BYU on the left sideline.
An unbelievable pass to Collie that crept just over the tight coverage of Jets cornerback Drew Coleman for 46 yards.
A 16-yard ball that only a leaping Collie could catch near the back of the end zone.
Boom, boom, boom and what felt like a big 11-point New York lead was transformed into what seemed like a flimsy four-point advantage.
Everyone asked about it afterward called the end of the first-half drive huge.
“They had a lead and it’s not looking good and of course they have the ball going into the second half and you try to get some kind of rhythm there,” Manning said. “A lot of times after a timeout versus these guys, you feel like they might be dialing up some sort of blitz.
“So we went to a max protection and took a shot. And No. 30 [Coleman] really had pretty good coverage. I thought he might have mistimed his jump. That play down the field to Collie before the touchdown is the play that I think really got us going . . . from that point on we really had a good bead on things.”
Said Colts linebacker Clint Session: “When you’re going in at the half and you’re being smothered, that gives you a little more confidence to know that you’re not that far away. And we took it and ran with it.”
The Jets acknowledged that the final couple minutes of the first half stung after playing as well as they did in the first 28.
“You think about 17-6, we thought we were in a good position at that point,” Jets safety Kerry Rhodes said. “But it wasn't good enough [Sunday]. They got the drive right before half, and after that it was downhill from there.”
When you've come back as often as the Colts have, you apparently get kind of used to it.
Collie had his first 100-yard game thanks largely to that drive, and said they were simply plays the team regularly practices in two-minute drills.
Peyton Manning said things don’t change that much for Indianapolis’ offense, because playing fast is what the Colts try to do all the time.
“We’re an up-tempo team but obviously the two-minute drill makes you go fast because you are playing against the clock,” he said. “It’s not a complete change of philosophy for us. We do practice it a lot. I think guys are really comfortable with it.
“Certainly in that drive we felt a sense of urgency, we had to get something going. Because they had the lead and they had some momentum and I thought that was just a huge answer to get that drive.”
The game around it was also characteristic of the Colts in many ways.
They knew over 60 minutes they’d have sufficient time to show their full arsenal and the resiliency that’s been such a big part of a season in which they’ve won every time they’ve put forth full effort with their top people.
But the win likely would have been a lot more difficult if they started the third quarter down two scores.
Out of sight of both Peyton and Cooper, their father Archie Manning also talked after the game. He said a coaching staff that trusts the offense and an offense that believes in itself are keys in such situations.
Also, while most people presume such situations are more difficult, sometimes they actually might be easier.
“Things are a little looser," he said. “The Jets don’t play prevent [defense], but sometimes that’s your best time to execute. You just go do it.”
Peyton Manning said he’s mentally drained after a tough week of grinding to prepare for the Jets.
It wasn’t fatigue, however, that prompted a half-hearted lift of the Lamar Hunt Trophy when it was passed to him on the stage near midfield prior to his interview with Jim Nantz. He didn’t raise it above his sternum, then held it low and eagerly unloaded it as soon as he could.
Kind of like that shot in that basketball game back in 1992.
As Cooper Manning’s younger brother left the interview podium, I asked him if he could confirm or deny the story of a time when a ticking clock was an enemy instead of an ally.
“I don’t know if he told it the right way,” Peyton Manning said, looking back over his shoulder as he exited the room. “But there is some truth to it.”