KANSAS CITY — Record days from Kansas City’s Priest Holmes and Dante Hall weren’t about to stop Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning from going to his first AFC Championship Game.
More important, the Chiefs’ defense couldn’t stop him, either.
Manning had another nearly flawless game Sunday, and the Chiefs’ high-powered offense couldn’t quite catch up, and the Colts beat Kansas City 38-31, eliminating the second-seeded Chiefs.
“They made the plays, we didn’t,” Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil said. “So we go on and go home, and they go on and go to work.”
The Colts, who have yet to punt in two playoff games, will head to New England to face the Patriots on Sunday at 2 p.m. for a chance to go to the Super Bowl in Houston on Feb. 1.
Manning completed 22-of-30 passes from 304 yards and three touchdowns without throwing an interception. With the help of running back Edgerrin James, who ran for 125 yards on 26 carries, the Colts’ offense dominated.
“Today it really felt like we had handcuffs on,” Chiefs defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. “It really felt like it didn’t matter (what we did).”
Even with the 79,159 Chiefs fans at Arrowhead Stadium trying to make things difficult, Manning ran the Colts’ offense the best way he knows: using no-huddle with several audibles to adjust nearly every play to the defense. It resulted in a confused Chiefs defense, which was 30th in the league.
“Peyton Manning did an unbelievable job,” Vermeil said. “Our fans did everything they could to help us in preventing him from doing what he does so well. I’ve never anybody do it anybody better. So I salute him.”
With the exceptions of their opening drive and a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, the Colts held at least a seven-point lead, forcing the Chiefs’ offense to keep up. For the most part, Kansas City was able to answer, but a Holmes fumble and two trips to the red zone without touchdowns proved to be more than the difference.
“You look at our two red-zone opportunities where we didn’t come away with touchdowns, those cost us,” Kansas City quarterback Trent Green said.
The Colts forced the Chiefs into a red-zone field goal on their opening drive, after Kansas City receiver Marc Boerigter dropped a pass that would have been a touchdown. Then on Kansas City’s last drive of the first half, a touchdown pass from Green to Tony Gonzalez that would have made it 21-17 was taken away on a pass-interference penalty on Gonzalez.
The Chiefs couldn’t get back into the end zone, and then Morten Andersen missed a 21-yard field goal with 1:05 left in the half.
Green completed 18-of-30 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown, and Holmes ran 24 times for 176 yards, a Kansas City playoff record. A mistake on his longest run gave the Colts the chance to go ahead two touchdowns and keep the Chiefs at a distance.
With the Chiefs trailing 21-10 on the second play of the second half, Holmes fumbled after running 48 yards, and the Colts recovered.
Indianapolis came back with a 51-yard drive that resulted in a field goal to go ahead 24-10. From there, the teams traded touchdowns, and it wasn’t enough to fight the Chiefs back.
The Colts converted 8-of-11 third downs, and two of the failed conversions came at the end of each half, when Indianapolis was trying to run out the clock.
Manning’s audible offense continued to keep the Chiefs flatfooted, especially apparent on a third-quarter touchdown where Manning found Reggie Wayne wide open on a fade after switching to the shotgun on an audible.
“He caught us in our blitzes, in our zone blitzes, he caught us in our zone looks, man-to-man,” Holliday said. “They came in with slant-slant-slant, and then they go to the fade. It was just a tough day.”
That touchdown made it 31-17, but as he had done so much at the beginning of the season, Hall had a quick response. On the ensuing kickoff, Hall hit about three holes, and then cut back past kicker Mike Vanderjagt for a 92-yard touchdown return to bring the Chiefs back to 31-24 with 1:38 left in the third. The return set a Kansas City playoff record.
The Colts responded again, this time with a little help from the Chiefs. When the Chiefs thought they had finally stopped the Colts on third down, but the officials called Kansas City for having 12 men on the field. The Colts then went on to score on James’ 1-yard run.
“You talk about taking the air out of the balloon,” Holliday said. “We finally got to a point where we were feeling pretty good in a situation where we needed a stop, and then a big credit to them again. They hurried to the line.”
Kansas City went on a 17-play fourth-quarter drive to bring the game to 38-31 with 4:22 left, and then even with his defense’s futility against the Colts, Vermeil decided to kick off rather than try an onside kick.
“I thought we’d get the ball back,” Vermeil said. “The percentages aren’t good, there’s four minutes to go. We thought about the onside kick, but we just felt it was better to kick. Hey, you never know, maybe we’re going to stop them.”
The Colts ran the clock down to eight seconds left before giving the ball back to Kansas City. With more than 65 yards between them and the end zone, the Chiefs decided to try a screen pass to free room for Holmes to try to run for the touchdown. He was tackled at the Kansas City 40, and the clock had run out on Kansas City’s season.