Most significant moment in Colts’ Indy history? ’06 AFC title game win over Pats, of course

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INDIANAPOLIS - JANUARY 21: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates defeating the New England Patriots 38-34 in the AFC Championship Game on January 21, 2007 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The games have flowed historically, occasionally hysterically, since that snowy night in March 1984 when the once-proud Baltimore Colts franchise Mayflowered its way to Indianapolis.

There have been growing pains and growth spurts; amazing highs and agonizing lows.

There have been 527 games in all, including the postseason, in 33 seasons. That’s more games and seasons than from the Colts’ storied Baltimore era (438 in 31).

Sift through the memorabilia generated from 1984 through 2016, and everything – every game – falls in line behind Jan. 21, 2007.

It was the AFC Championship Game at the RCA Dome, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Saturday.

It was the latest chapter in the Colts vs. Patriots docudrama.

It was Colts 38, Patriots 34, which required climbing out of an 18-point second-quarter hole and staging the largest comeback in a conference championship game.

It was without question the defining moment for the Indianapolis Colts, more so than their next game, a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

“I couldn’t agree more,” said long-time front-office guru Bill Polian. “Anybody who’s been involved in it feels the same.”

Jeff Saturday offered no argument.

“It’s not even close,” he said.

The Colts’ decorated center had endured New England’s early dominance in the series, particularly when it mattered most. The Patriots mauled the Colts 24-14 in the ’03 AFC Championship Game, and bounced them from the ’04 postseason with a dominant 20-3 gut-punch in the divisional round.

Each unfolded in Foxborough, Mass. The next playoff meeting would be in Indy, and finally would offer validation to a team that had enjoyed so much regular-season success but encountered so much postseason misery.

That it came at the expense of the Patriots was appropriate on so many levels, and lifted the game to unmatched status.

“I told people I didn’t have any doubt about (beating) the Bears, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully,” Saturday said. “But to beat who I considered and I still consider to this day to be the best defense . . . the best-coached . . . to beat those guys, you knew you played your best and you matched wits with the best. There’s something about that game that was the defining moment.

“Winning the Super Bowl was awesome, trust me. But that moment, to beat the New England Patriots in that situation, was the game that I would go back and say it was my favorite game I ever played.”

Signature games require signature moments, and the ’06 AFC title game provided more than a few. A recap, with some observations from those who shaped them:

Samuel’s pick-6: It was amazing how quiet a sellout crowd of 57,433 became early in the second quarter when Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel jumped a Peyton Manning pass to Marvin Harrison and returned the interception 39 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

Manning: “We didn’t get a lot going in the first half. Samuel jumped a hook route in front of Marvin and ran it back for a touchdown to make it 21-3. It did not look good.”

Stop the bleeding: The Colts narrowed the halftime deficit to 21-6 by driving for Adam Vinatieri’s 26-yard field goal late in the second quarter. The 15-play, 80-yard possession swung the game’s momentum. The Colts would tack up 32 second-half points against a Patriots defense that ranked No. 2 in the NFL in fewest points allowed during the regular season and hadn’t allowed more than 27 in a game.

Tony Dungy: “To get down three scores is difficult. But we hung in there. I thought we kept our composure. As long as we were close . . . once we got back to the one-score in the third quarter, then we were able to play.”

Manning to Klecko: Manning’s list of TD targets included luminaries – Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Edgerrin James, etc. – and a defensive lineman/fullback. On first-and-goal at the 1 in the third quarter, Dan Klecko lined up as a lead blocker, drifted right and gathered in Manning’s pass for a touchdown. It was the second hookup between the odd couple, the first coming during the regular season. Manning’s two-point conversion to Harrison tied things at 21-all.

Manning: “He made a nice catch and was excited about scoring against his old team.”

Center of attention: Saturday provided a historic trifecta early in the fourth quarter when he covered a goal-line fumble by Dominic Rhodes in the end zone for a touchdown. It was the catalyst for a memorable line from long-time Colts announcer Bob Lamey: “He fumbled the freakin’ football . . . They say the Colts got it! Oh doctor, that is a big break!”

Saturday joined Patriots’ offensive lineman Logan Mankins and Klecko as linemen to tack up TDs.

Saturday: “All of a sudden I look down and see the ball. I see other Colts helmets and other guys swarming. I just dropped down. I got it and I remember just driving with everything I had toward the goal line and thinking, ‘Hold it like this is the last thing on the planet. The world will end if you let this ball go.”’

Thumb’s up: Midway through the fourth quarter, Manning injured the thumb on his throwing hand when it struck the helmet of tackle Tarik Glenn. There was mild concern whether he could finish the biggest game of his career.

Manning: “It’s one of those injuries where it can be an irritant to throw. I couldn’t throw it quite as effectively. I remember telling (Jim) Sorgi to get loose. I hadn’t thrown a pass yet, and all of a sudden I do and the ball is going every direction. That’s not good. But I was able to throw. I was going back in.”

Wayne’s whirl: The game-winning drive included Manning and Wayne collaborating on one of their patented plays – a quick left-to-right slant. Wayne weaved for a 14-yard gain, but temporarily lost control of the football. Surrounded by Patriots, he regained it. As it turned out, a roughing-the-quarterback penalty on Tully Banta-Cain would have nullified a fumble.

Manning: “You talk about time standing still . . . the ball’s popping up and Reggie’s reaching for it and there’s Bruschi and Samuel and it seemed like two or three others just around Reggie. It was frozen in time. Reggie goes up and gets it back.”

Path to championship: On a team featuring Manning, Harrison, Wayne and Clark, the comeback was complete when Joseph Addai ran through the heart of the Patriots defense for a 3-yard TD with 1 minute to play. Addai followed Saturday, who drove nose tackle Vince Wilfork into the end zone.

Addai: “We had been throwing the ball so much and that’s what people expected us to do. But Marvin said ‘Let’s run it.’ I remember that. I remember the guys up front were great and I was able to walk in.”

The clincher: There would be no counter-comeback from the Patriots. Defensive back Marlin Jackson slammed the door by slicing in front of tight end Ben Watson and intercepting a Tom Brady pass. Sixteen seconds remained. It was over. Next stop: Super Bowl XLI.

Jackson: “I knew Brady liked to throw blindly. He would look one way, then throw blindly the opposite way. My pre-snap recognition with the play, I realized he’s immediately looking the other way. I knew he was going to come back my way, so I had to be prepared, ready to break.”

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51