INDIANAPOLIS — Cheered on by thousands of fans waving signs that read "Pey-back," quarterback Peyton Manning and the rest of the Indianapolis Colts did more Sunday than avenge a recent loss to Denver.
They finally shed their gag tag.
"I hope people thought this was a big game," Coach Tony Dungy said with a smile after his Colts throttled the Broncos, 41-10, in an AFC wild-card game at the RCA Dome. "I heard people out there say that Indianapolis never wins big games. We thought it was big if no one else did."
The Colts, who will play at Kansas City on Sunday in an AFC semifinal, cruised to victory behind a spectacular performance from Manning, who to this point was 0 for 3 in postseason games. He completed 22 of 26 passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns, amassing the highest-possible passer rating of 158.3.
Although he admitted that the team's performance helped salve the sting of last season's 41-0 loss to the New York Jets in a playoff opener, Manning was even-keeled after the biggest victory of his career.
"I'll enjoy it tonight," he said. "I'll go and have a shrimp cocktail and a big steak. But at the same time, Kansas City doesn't care that we won a playoff game.... This is just one win. We want to keep playing."
Manning's was the fourth "perfect" passer rating in NFL playoff history, following those by Dallas' Don Meredith (1967), Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw (1976) and Seattle's Dave Krieg (1983).
On top of that, Manning became the first player in NFL history to throw five touchdown passes in a game three times in a single season. He did so earlier in victories over Atlanta and New Orleans.
"He's just managed the game incredibly well the entire year and this was just another one of those performances," said Jeff Saturday, who switched from center to guard for Sunday's game so that the Colts could better neutralize defensive end Trevor Pryce.
The Colts had not won a playoff game at home since January 1971 -- when they played in Baltimore, and before any of their current players were born.
It was a jolting finish for the Broncos, who won a Dec. 21 game at Indianapolis, 31-17, limiting the Colts to 37 plays and holding a half-hour advantage in time of possession.
"We beat them two weeks ago," Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "They humiliated us today."
One play, in particular, is sure to haunt the Broncos on highlight reels for a long while.
It came at the end of the first quarter, when Indianapolis had a 7-3 advantage and had just crossed midfield. On third and eight at the Denver 46, Manning completed a pass to Marvin Harrison, who tumbled to the turf around the 30. He lay there surrounded by Denver players. One clapped his hands in frustration. One pulled out his mouth guard. Two more had a brief conversation.
But none of them touched Harrison down.
So, to the delight of his teammates and the crowd -- and to the surprise of confused Denver defenders -- Harrison climbed to his feet and sprinted the rest of the way to the end zone for a touchdown.
"Coach always tells us that when you're on the ground, you get up until the [referee] blows the whistle," he said. "When I was on the ground, I didn't feel anyone touch me. I was trying to get up slowly so I wouldn't get knocked in the head, and I got up and ran."
That was the first of Harrison's two touchdown catches in the first half. Brandon Stokley had a pair in the first half too, one for 31 yards and one down the middle when he got behind the secondary and Manning hit him in stride for an 87-yard score.
The frustration was obvious in the near-silent Denver locker room. The Broncos haven't won a playoff game since John Elway retired.
"It's my personal opinion that we have a few stragglers," said receiver Rod Smith, who has a pair of Super Bowl rings from Denver's heyday in the late 1990s. "What I mean by that is we have some guys that don't live and bleed football. Simple as that.... We've got to get rid of the guys who don't feel that way. We're only as strong as our weakest link, and the chain's going to break in that spot. That's what happened to us. The chain broke in the spot where our weakest links are."
So where were those weak links Sunday? Take your pick. The Broncos didn't register a sack, didn't force a punt, had three turnovers, and didn't score a touchdown for the first 52 minutes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
With his five-touchdown and 377-yard performance against the Broncos in Sunday's wild-card game, Peyton Manning finally won his first playoff game:
*--* Averages from previous three Sunday vs. Broncos playoff starts 0-3 Won-Loss 1-0 35 Attempts 26 16.7 Completions 22 47.6 Completion Pct. 84.6 186 Yards 377 0.33 Touchdowns 5 0.67 Interceptions 0 59.1 QB rating 158.3
*--* Colts' playoff games with Manning Date Opponent Result Jan. 4, 2004 Denver 41-10 win Jan. 4, 2003 at N.Y. Jets 41-0 loss Dec. 30, 2000 at Miami 23-17 loss Jan. 16, 2000 Tennessee 19-16 loss
-- Roy Jurgens