MIAMI — Peyton Manning spent the whole season building toward a Super Bowl crown, a win that certainly would put him among the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
And then he threw it all away.
Blocked onto his butt, Manning could only watch as Tracy Porter returned an interception for a clinching, 74-yard touchdown in the final minutes Sunday that gave the New Orleans Saints a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
"It's time for the Saints to celebrate. It's their field and it's their championship," Manning said.
It was a startling end to a game that seemed destined to wind up in Manning's strong right hand. It was the lone turnover of a back-and-forth thriller — who in the world would have thought the big mistake could be made by Manning?
Yet there he was, sitting on the grass after brawny Saints defensive end Will Smith knocked him down as he tried to get in Porter's way. Manning took a glance over his shoulder toward the end zone, unbuckled his chin strap, stood up and simply walked toward the bench.
"We played well in the first playoff game, played well two weeks ago. We just didn't make enough plays against the Saints," Manning said.
All week, the story line for the Super Bowl was this: Could Manning, a New Orleans boy through and through, deny the Saints in a game they desperately wanted to win for their city?
Turned out Manning did help his hometown town win its first Super Bowl — only not in the way he wanted.
Until Porter cut in front of wide receiver Reggie Wayne, Manning seemed to be in charge. The four-time MVP did his dance at the line of scrimmage, putting his teammates in position, and zipped pass completions all over the field. The Colts set an NFL record with seven fourth-quarter comebacks this season, and surely most everyone at Sun Life Stadium thought ol' Peyton was at it again. Down 24-17, the Colts were driving toward a tying score until Porter sealed it.
Manning had been MVP of the Colts' victory in the Super Bowl on the very same field three years ago, and was a good bet to win the trophy once more. Instead, the night finished the same way his final college game for Tennessee did — a bruising loss to Nebraska, also on this field.
Even after Porter's pick, Manning tried to rally the Colts. He moved them near the Saints' goal line, but a final pass to Wayne fell incomplete.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the beneficiary of Manning's pep talks while in college at Purdue, took a knee to end it.
Manning wound up 31 for 45 for 333 yards and one touchdown. He finished one short of the Super Bowl record for completions set by Tom Brady and tied by Brees, though the one pass he threw to the Saints will be the one that fans remember, and the pick that's shown on highlight films for years to come.
Known for their late rallies, the Colts lost by letting the Saints outscore them 15-0 in the final 15 minutes.
Manning was surrounded in the final period. As he walked from the sideline to the huddle with his head down to start the fourth quarter, he suddenly found himself surrounded by three dozen Colts cheerleaders rushing off the field after their routine. He stopped, let them pass and kept on his way.
Early in the period, Manning made one of his few bad throws, floating a deep ball that fell incomplete near the goal line. Manning threw down a towel when he got to the bench.
Moments later, the giant video board showed his younger brother, Eli, in the crowd. Eli was the MVP of the Super Bowl two years ago as QB of the New York Giants, but there was no celebrating this time.
Unlike celebrities such as Jamie Foxx, Gloria Estefan and Scottie Pippen who smiled when they showed up on the board, Eli merely looked straight ahead with no emotion.