He took Dungy along for the ride, helping his coach finally get to the big game and make some history along the way. In two weeks, Dungy will join Chicago's Lovie Smith in the Super Bowl, where together they will be the first black head coaches to meet in the NFL's biggest game.
"It means a lot," Dungy said. "I'm very proud to be representing African-Americans. I'm very proud of Lovie."
Manning wouldn't concede that a huge weight was lifted with this win, the biggest in his nine-year NFL career.
"I don't get into monkeys and vindication," he said. "I don't play that card. I know how hard I worked this season, I know how hard I worked this week."
Sunday's game was a show for the ages, and Manning was the star. He threw for 349 yards and one touchdown and brought his team back from a 21-3 deficit, the biggest comeback in conference title-game history.
Joseph Addai capped Manning's late drive with the winning score, a 3-yard run with 1 minute left to help the Colts (15-4) complete the rally and give them their first lead in the game.
After the final score, Manning was on the sideline, his head down, unable to watch. Tom Brady threw an interception to Marlin Jackson and the RCA Dome crowd went wild. One kneel down later and Manning ripped off his helmet to celebrate.
"I said a little prayer on that last drive," Manning said. "I don't know if you're supposed to pray for stuff like that, but I said a little prayer."
Not only was it a win for Manning, the All-Pro, All-Everything son of Archie, it was a riveting, back-and-forth showcase of two of the NFL's best teams, best quarterbacks, and yet another example of why football is America's favorite sport.
It was anything but a by-the-book game, and that started becoming obvious when New England left guard Logan Mankins opened the scoring by pouncing on a fumbled handoff between Brady and Laurence Maroney that squirted into the Indy end zone midway through the first quarter.
Then, the game plan changed because it had to, and the game morphed from another Manning meltdown into something much more.
The first came on a 1-yard quarterback sneak. The second was capped by a 1-yard pass to Dan Klecko, a defensive tackle who came in as a supposed decoy at the goal line. A circus catch by Marvin Harrison for the 2-point conversion tied the game at 21.
"I'm so proud of the way our guys fought," Dungy said. "I'm very happy for Peyton. He was very, very calm. He had to bring us from behind three or four times. It's just fitting. Our team went the hard way the whole year."
After Indy's tying score, the Patriots answered with an 80-yard kickoff return by Ellis Hobbs, which set up a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Jabar Gaffney. Officials awarded the score to Gaffney after ruling he was forced out of the back of the end zone by an Indy defender.
Manning came right back but his handoff to Dominic Rhodes misfired. The ball scooted forward and center Jeff Saturday got this touchdown to tie the score at 28.
After that drive, Manning could be seen on the sideline, nursing a sore thumb. But he wasn't coming out.
"I was a little worried at first, but I went over, made a few warmup throws and it was fine," he said. "I guess adrenaline pulled me through there a little, too."
After a touchback, it was time for Manning's drive: 11 yards to Reggie Wayne, 32 yards to Bryan Fletcher, a scary completion to Wayne, who nearly lost the ball but snatched it back.
A roughing-the-passer call gave Indy the ball at the 11, then Manning handed off three straight times to Addai for the last 11 yards.
"I watched the drive with Elway, you never get tired of seeing that," Manning said. "I'm not comparing what we just did to that, but it sounds pretty good."
It was Manning at his best.
He was 0-2 in the playoffs against New England, and saw another great chance for the Super Bowl disappear last year in a home loss to Pittsburgh. The storyline all week was what a break the Colts got in getting the Patriots at home, and what a sensational feeling it would be to finally knock off the team that bedeviled them most.
"We played the defenses we thought were best for our football team," Belichick said. "That's all we did."
The Colts piled on 455 yards and scored on six of their final eight drives, not counting the one where Manning kneeled down. The mystique that seemed so prevalent last week in an upset win over San Diego seemed missing, and this looked like a tired, desperate, defeated team in the end. Maybe it was due in part to a flu bug that worked its way through its locker room during the week.
So while that dynasty is dead, it is now Manning's turn to take a shot at starting a new one.
"Some of that stuff is a little deep for me," Manning said. "I just wanted to do my job and do my job well. I didn't think I needed to be super. I just needed to be good."
On this defining day, it turns out he was both.