INDIANAPOLIS — There’s a price to pay for keeping the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands.
Once he gets it, he doesn’t give it back — at least not until he’s gotten the Indianapolis Colts plenty of points and a playoff win.
In his first game since winning an unprecedented fourth NFL MVP award, Manning threw for two touchdowns last Saturday night in a 20-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The Colts will host the AFC championship Sunday against the New York Jets.
Manning and the other Colts starters got lots of rest when rookie coach Jim Caldwell sat them for long portions of the final two regular-season games, both losses after they had opened 14-0. Then they had a bye, a reward for owning the league’s best record.
And when the Ravens (10-8), who routed New England in the wild-card round, marched 87 yards for an early field goal, the All-Pro quarterback’s sour face told it all.
By halftime, the scoreboard told it all: Indianapolis 17, Baltimore 3.
It didn’t get any tighter, even though Ed Reed got his fourth career interception of Manning in the third quarter. Reed was stripped of the ball by a sprinting Pierre Garcon, the intended receiver, at the end of a 38-yard return. Dallas Clark recovered, and Reed was robbed of another pick five plays later because of a pass interference call on Corey Ivy.
The Ravens’ vaunted defense was self-destructing, and Manning gave it another push toward the offseason with a 14-play drive that ended with Matt Stover’s 33-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
The last time the Colts hosted the conference title game was three years ago, when they won their only Super Bowl representing Indianapolis. That championship victory came in Miami, the same site as next month’s Super Bowl.
NEW ORLEANS 45, ARIZONA 14
NEW ORLEANS — Maybe a little rest was all Drew Brees and Reggie Bush needed to shift the Saints’ league-leading offense back into overdrive.
That, and a visit from Arizona’s porous defense.
Brees threw three touchdown passes, Bush scored on an 83-yard punt return and a spectacular 46-yard run, and New Orleans overwhelmed the defending NFC champion Cardinals 45-14 in their divisional playoff game Saturday.
“We came off a stretch where we had all the advantages of being rested,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “We played with a lot of energy.”
One win from their first Super Bowl, the Saints will host an NFC title game for the first time in franchise history this weekend when they play Minnesota.
“There’s been a lot of firsts since Sean Payton has been here in this organization and we want to keep that going,” Brees said. “We want to bring this franchise a championship.”
Jeremy Shockey caught a touchdown pass in his return from a three-game absence. Devery Henderson and Marques Colston also had touchdown catches, and Lynell Hamilton had a short touchdown run for the Saints.
Bush finished with 84 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving and 109 yards on three punt returns. Colston caught six passes for 83 yards.
“We had a plan the whole time,” said Brees, who passed for 247 yards. “It was hard for anybody to understand that plan if you’re not a member of my team, but we trusted in that plan, that process. We executed throughout the week and it showed in the game.”
The victory wound up being so easy for New Orleans that Payton began pulling his regulars early in the fourth quarter and going with basic run plays to chew up the clock.
NEW YORK JETS 17, SAN DIEGO 14
SAN DIEGO — Maybe Rex Ryan already knows the score of the AFC championship game, too.
The rookie coach who, at one point, didn’t know his Jets were still in playoff contention, then declared them Super Bowl favorites, will need some more bold predictions.
His Jets are still playing.
Rookies Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene led New York to a stunning 17-14 upset of San Diego in the divisional playoffs Sunday, each providing a touchdown in the fourth quarter that marked another Chargers postseason pratfall.
“It’s a big win for our franchise,” Sanchez said, “and we’re not done.”
Sanchez threw a go-ahead, 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller three plays into the fourth quarter, then Greene gave the Jets some breathing room with a 53-yard scoring run on their next possession.
The upstart Jets (11-7), who have won seven of their last eight, advanced to the AFC championship game for the first time since 1999.
They’ll play at top-seeded Indianapolis Sunday.
“A matchup that probably nobody wanted, but too bad,” Ryan said. “Here we come!”
Of course, it was the Colts who pulled Peyton Manning and other starters in the second half of their Week 16 game against the Jets, who rallied for a victory that put them in control of their playoff destiny.
Before that game, Ryan said his holiday wish was for the Colts to rest Manning & Co.
“I don’t know if Santa Claus will be that good to me again,” Ryan said. “But I will say that I’d like to see Peyton Manning play this week.”
After the Jets finally did clinch a playoff spot by routing Cincinnati the following week, Ryan, their rookie head coach, created a postseason itinerary for his players that included the Super Bowl in Miami followed by a parade two days later.
He might be onto something.
Maybe this week he’ll predict the Jets’ opponent in the Super Bowl.
“We believed the whole time, the whole year, when it probably wasn’t the popular choice,” Ryan said.
“We don’t have to apologize to anyone.”
The Chargers let New York hang around long enough, and the Jets finally got out of their own way, becoming the only road team to win in the divisional round.
After Philip Rivers scored on a 1-yard sneak with 2:14 left to pull the Chargers within three, the Jets recovered the onside kick.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from the 29 with 1:09 left, the Jets called timeout. Ryan decided to go for it and Thomas Jones bulled through the Chargers’ line for 2 yards to seal it.
Sanchez pumped his fist and pointed his hand forward in the first-down signal.
On the sideline, Ryan lifted much smaller offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer off the ground in a bear hug.
MINNESOTA 34, DALLAS 3
MINNEAPOLIS — “This is what I came back for.”
For the adrenaline rush. For the in-your-face touchdown. For another shot at the Super Bowl.
Brett Favre wanted all of it, and now he’s got it.
Four — count ‘em, four — touchdown passes from Minnesota’s 40-year-old quarterback sent the Vikings to the NFC championship game with a determined 34-3 rout of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
“Probably the most fatigued I got today was celebrating,” Favre said, smiling.
The Vikings (13-4) will take on the Saints Sunday at New Orleans (14-3), with the winner going to the Super Bowl in Miami — the only reason Favre put retirement on hold for a second straight season.
Favre found Sidney Rice for three scores and put an exclamation point on the final one when his fourth-and-3 pass from the 11 was caught in the end zone by Visanthe Shiancoe after the 2-minute warning.
Never in 22 previous playoff games had Favre thrown for four scores, and never before had he beaten Dallas in the postseason after losses to the Cowboys ended his first three playoff experiences with Green Bay.
Favre finished 15 for 24 for 234 yards without a turnover, slapping fives with anyone in reach and rapidly pumping his right arm after each score.
“I feel like I’m playing the same way. I have the same enthusiasm,” Favre said. “As long as I’m out there, the enthusiasm and the passion that you see is real. And I know the guys feed off of that. Fans enjoy that, because it is real and genuine.”
Favre even added another accomplishment as the first 40-year-old quarterback to win a playoff game.
“Today was like this season: It’s been wonderful,” said Favre, whose only championship came 13 years ago with the Packers.
Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking was upset about a late touchdown that the Vikings scored, and he confronted Minnesota coach Brad Childress on the sideline.
“I think it was totally classless and disrespectful,” Brooking said.
Childress and Favre both chalked it up to staying aggressive to the end.
“That wasn’t rubbing it in. It’s just taking care of business,” the coach said.