INDIANAPOLIS - There's a price to pay for keeping the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands.
Once he gets it, he doesn't give it back - at least not until he's gotten the Indianapolis Colts plenty of points and a playoff win.
In his first game since winning an unprecedented fourth NFL MVP award, Manning threw for two touchdowns last night in a 20-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Colts will host the Jets or the Chargers in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.
Manning and the other Colts starters got lots of rest when rookie coach Jim Caldwell sat them for long portions of the final two regular-season games, both losses after they had opened 14-0. Then they had a bye, a reward for owning the league's best record.
And when the Ravens, who routed New England in the wild-card round, marched 87 yards for an early field goal, the All-Pro quarterback's sour face told it all.
It didn't get any tighter, even though Ed Reed got his fourth career interception of Manning in the third quarter. Reed was stripped of the ball by a sprinting Pierre Garcon, the intended receiver, at the end of a 38-yard return. Dallas Clark recovered, and Reed was robbed of another pick five plays later because of a pass-interference call on Corey Ivy.
The Ravens' vaunted defense was self-destructing, and Manning gave it another push toward the offseason with a 14-play drive to Matt Stover's 33-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
The last time the Colts hosted the conference title game was three years ago, when they won their only Super Bowl while representing Indianapolis. That championship victory came in Miami, the same site as next month's Super Bowl.
Indy's 18th-ranked defense gave Manning lots of help, shutting down a running game that romped for 234 yards against the Patriots.
Baltimore, with rookie Joe Flacco at quarterback, won two road games last January to get to the AFC Championship Game, where it lost to Pittsburgh. Flacco struggled in this postseason and was intercepted twice last night.