American Football: Play-off payback for dazzling Colts

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The Independent Online

Sometimes, what happens in the regular NFL season can provide a good pointer to what to expect when the play-offs begin. Then again, sometimes it is simply best to ignore everything.

Two weeks ago, the Denver Broncos thrashed the Indianapolis Colts 31-17, a scoreline which barely reflected their overall superiority. On Sunday, same teams, same venue, but a totally different outcome. The Colts exacted their revenge, prevailing 41-10, and it could have been even more.

The Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who had never won a play-off game in three previous attempts, was close to perfection, completing 22 of 26 passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns, two each for Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley and one for Reggie Wayne. The Broncos fell behind early, and never recovered.

In truth, they only had themselves to blame. One play at the end of the first quarter summed up Denver's ineptitude. With his side leading 7-3, Manning completed a pass at midfield to Harrison. He was surrounded by three Bronco defenders, but none of them touched him to conclude the play. Instead, all three argued among themselves as Harrison raced incredulously into the end zone.

After that, the visitors seemed to lose all hope. Manning fired an 87-yard touchdown to Stokley as Denver's defense stood and stared; the Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was intercepted twice and lost a fumble, and even the normally reliable kicker Jason Elam had a field goal blocked.

It was all a far cry from the late 1990s, when Denver won two consecutive Super Bowls under the guidance of the legendary quarterback, John Elway. One of the few survivors from that era, Shannon Sharpe, looked on in disbelief.

"We did absolutely nothing today," said the Denver tight end. "I don't know if I ever, in 14 years of playing, felt the way I felt today." After a stellar career, Sharpe is now pondering retirement. The Colts are pondering their next challenge, a trip to Kansas City next weekend, just two victories away from a place in next month's Super Bowl.

The Green Bay Packers also remain on course following their thrilling 33-27 overtime victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The hero was Green Bay's dreadlocked defender Al Harris, who intercepted a pass from Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, returning it 52 yards for the game-winning touchdown. In truth, this was harsh on Hasselbeck, who had matched his illustrious counterpart, Brett Favre.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Hasselbeck, who had been Favre's understudy for a number of years. He, along with the Seahawks head coach, Mike Holmgren, were returning to Wisconsin in the hope of springing a surprise, and when Shaun Alexander scored on a pair of short runs in the third quarter, they held a 20-13 lead.

However, Favre then went to work, engineering a pair of scoring drives himself to put his side back on top. Seattle responded again through Alexander, to tie the scores with 51 seconds remaining.

Seattle won the toss in overtime. But within minutes Favre set a new NFL record by throwing a scoring pass in his 14th consecutive play-off game, and only Dan Marino and Joe Montana have more post-season touchdowns than the Green Bay maestro. With a trip to Philadelphia next weekend, Favre is far from finished.