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 to the ground, 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 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.
Saints defensive end Will Smith knocked Manning down as he tried to get in Porter's way. Manning took a glance over his shoulder toward the end zone, unbuckled his chinstrap, 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, the son of former Saints quarterback Archie and a New Orleans boy through and through, deny New Orleans in a game they desperately wanted to win for their city?
Turned out Manning did help his hometown team 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 when he got on the field. 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 Manning was at it again. Down 24-17, the Colts were driving toward a tying score until Porter sealed it with 3:12 left.
"That’s a play we run a lot," Manning said. "[Porter] made a great play. That’s all I can say."
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.
Manning failed to become the 11th quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls.
Manning's receivers helped the Colts reach the Super Bowl but had crucial drops in the championship.
Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie couldn't catch third-down passes to keep drives going. Hank Baskett made a mistake on special teams, failing to bring in New Orleans' onside kick to open the second half.
Manning did what he could Sunday, repeatedly driving the Colts down the field and forcing the Saints to gamble. But unlike previous games this season, many in his supporting cast didn't come through. It was the first time all season that the Colts' starters finished a game and lost.
Garcon had an early TD reception, but he dropped a big third-down pass in the second quarter when New Orleans was down 10-3 and struggling.
The Saints kept the ball for 26 of the next 32 plays.
Collie couldn't haul in another third-down pass early in the fourth quarter. It forced the Colts to send 42-year-old kicker Matt Stover in to attempt a 51-yard field goal that went wide left. Stover's miss set up New Orleans' go-ahead TD drive.
But it wasn't just the offensive role players who struggled for Indy.
Colts defenders missed several tackles, something they had not done frequently all season. On the first two New Orleans touchdown drives, the Saints never confronted a third-down situation.
The combination helped prevent Manning from working yet another fourth-quarter comeback.