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 Saturday night in a 20-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The Colts will host the AFC championship next Sunday against San Diego or the New York Jets.
"Whoever it is, we know it's going to be a challenge and we have to step it up another notch," coach Jim Caldwell said.
Manning and the other Colts starters got lots of rest when the rookie coach 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 (10-8), 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.
By halftime, the scoreboard told it all: Indianapolis 17, Baltimore 3.
"I thought we had good preparation coming into this game," Manning said, "and I thought we came out sharp and kind of set the tempo from the get-go."
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.
Directing a patient offense, Manning finished 30 of 44 for 246 yards.
"It's about executing on that day. I don't think it matters if you've had a bye or you're playing home or away," Manning said. "This myth that you can't win after a bye week, I haven't believed in it."
The last time the Colts hosted the conference title game was three years ago, when they won their only Super Bowl 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. Even when Ray Rice, who had 159 yards rushing a week ago, burst through for a 20-yard gain, Raheem Brock forced a fumble and the Colts recovered. It was Indy's third of four takeaways.
"Our defense did a tremendous job," Caldwell said. "Anytime you hold that offense the way they run the ball, and Ray Rice, under 100 yards, our defense did indeed play hard and well, tackled well, and they were opportunistic. It was a heck of a performance."
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 Saturday night.
Stover, the career scoring leader for Baltimore who joined Indianapolis in October, also had a 44-yard field goal. Billy Cundiff had a 25-yarder for the Ravens' only points.
The Colts have won eight straight against Baltimore, a city they once called home. The last time they were so stingy in a playoff game was as the Baltimore Colts 39 years ago, a 20-3 win over Cleveland – where the Ravens once lived as the original Browns.
The Ravens threw a wrinkle at Indianapolis on their first possession, using a no-huddle offense for portions of the 15-play drive that kept Manning on the sideline for nearly 8 minutes. What Baltimore didn't do was finish the drive with a touchdown, and it was fortunate to get Cundiff's field goal after Antoine Bethea dropped an interception at the goal line.
Manning must have been jealous of that series, because he soon led the Colts on an 8-minute, 75-yarder, converting a fourth-and-4 pass to Joseph Addai along the way. His pinpoint throw to Collie in the left corner of the end zone – the kind of pass that has become a Manning trademark – made it 10-3.
Then it was back to the quick pace the Colts are known for. After Baltimore's three-and-out, Manning needed just 1:23 to make it 17-3. The drive was aided by Ray Lewis' personal foul on a helmet-to-helmet hit against Collie in the end zone, and Wayne then leaned in with a 3-yard pass with 3 seconds remaining in the half.
Following its impressive first possession, Baltimore had the ball for less than 4 minutes in the opening half, gaining 9 yards in the second period.