At some point, Peyton Manning was going to have to prove the doubters wrong.
After a disastrous rookie season and then the subsequent playoff failures in 1999 against the Tennessee Titans, 2000 against the Miami Dolphins, and 2002 against the New York Jets, the 2003 AFC Wild Card Round battle against the Denver Broncos at the RCA Dome was put up or shut up time for Manning.
In his previous postseason game against the New York Jets on the road in New Jersey, Manning was horrendous, throwing for just 137 yards and two interceptions on a 45.16% completion percentage as the Colts lost 41-0 after a 10-6 season.
With all eyes on him looking to deliver in the playoffs for the first time in his career, Manning came through in a monster way.
Right away, the future Hall of Fame quarterback appeared locked in, completing his first four passes — three to running back Edgerrin James — before firing a strike to Brandon Stokley on a play-action fake for the 31-yard touchdown, giving the Colts an early 7-0 lead at home over the Broncos.
The Broncos then answered with a lengthy drive leaning heavily on running backs Clinton Portis and Quentin Griffin before settling for a 49-yard field goal by Jason Elam, making it a 7-3 game.
It was all Manning and the Colts from there though as on the ensuing drive, Manning hooked up twice with fellow Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison for two gains of 12 yards each, before then hooking up with Harrison for a 46-yard touchdown, with much of the work done by Harrison on the play.
Dropping back near midfield, Manning threw a dart to Harrison in between three Bronco defenders, causing Harrison to stretch out and fall to the ground to secure the catch. While falling, no Broncos' defender touched him down.
Realizing what happened, Harrison leaped to his feet and raced untouched into the end zone for the 46-yard score, giving the Colts a 14-3 lead late in the first quarter, providing the Broncos a sign of things to come in the second quarter.
Following a defensive stop by the Colts, Manning lit into the Broncos' defense, finding favorite tight end Marcus Pollard for 25 yards on the first play of the drive, before later finding Stokley for 13 yards, setting up his 23-yard strike to the right-front pylon to Harrison, pushing the Colts to a 21-3 lead, sending the RCA Dome into a frenzy and putting the rest of the playoff picture on notice.
Looking to answer before the half, the Broncos marched to midfield but were forced to punt the ball back to Manning with a little over a 2 minutes remaining.
Color Analyst Phil Simms, on the call with CBS's Greg Gumbel, mentioned prior to the Colts' first play of the drive that the Broncos gave the ball back to the young, hotshot QB with too much time left in the half.
Simms proved to be a prophet as Manning fired a seed to Stokley streaking down the middle of the field, resulting in an 87-yard touchdown and a 28-3 lead.
The Colts weren't done in the first half though as Manning later hooked up with Harrison for gains of 18 and 16 yards, James for 8 yards, and Reggie Wayne for 7 yards, setting up a Mike Vanderjagt 27-yard field goal as time expired in the first half with the Colts leading 31-3.
Coming out for the second half, the Colts got another defensive stop against the Broncos, giving a red-hot Manning the football once again, looking to put the game away for good.
Manning and the Colts did just that.
Manning found Wayne for 8 yards on the first play, then found Joe D. Davenport for 11 yards. Manning later found Stokley for 13 yards before then firing a strike to Wayne from 7 yards out, giving him his fifth touchdown of the game and the Colts a 38-3 lead that they'd never relinquish on the way to a 41-10 win.
In the win, Manning had his true playoff coming-out party, completing 22-of-26 passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns, completing 84.6% of his passes, a significant increase from the 49% completion percentage through three career playoff games prior the Wild Card breakout.
Building off of his first playoff win, Manning then went into Arrowhead Stadium the following week against the Kansas City Chiefs and dismantled the Chiefs' defense to the tune of 304 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-31 win, sending the Colts to the AFC Championship Game, where they'd ultimately fall to the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, setting up a decade-long rivalry.
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