Stokley finally belongs in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS -- Minutes after the Colts dough-popped Denver 41-10, wide receiver Brandon Stokley stood by his locker, spitting tobacco juice into a bottle, looking much of the way he had all year: In pain. Wrapped onto his left shoulder was a roundhouse-steak-sized ice pack. On his left ankle was another. Standing up, wincing a lot, he didn't exactly look like a pillar of comfort. His post-game look was that of a guy who'd missed 10 games with assorted injuries, not so much one who'd just caught 144 yards worth of passes, two for touchdowns.

But on a Sunday in Indianapolis that reversed a lot of trends, so it went for an undersized former unrestricted free agent who, as he said, "had been waiting for this."

Stokley was waiting for a game like this like Gilbert Brown waits for dinner. Stokley missed the first four games of the season recovering from surgery on his left foot. Then when he came back he injured his hamstring. That cost him two more. He came back against Miami just in time to get a concussion. Four more games came and went.

He finally was able to play against Tennessee in Week 13, and although he finished the season with 22 catches for 211 yards, he hadn't really found his spot on a team with good receivers. "It was my first year here and I wasn't getting the opportunities," he said. "I didn't know if I belonged."

The belonging started in the first quarter when he slipped unbumped from the slot, ran a deep corner route, and caught Peyton Manning's perfect pass for a 31-yard touchdown. Two drives later he caught a 13-yarder on third-and-2 to keep a drive alive, setting up a Marvin Harrison score. Indianapolis was in control, 21-3, but with 2:01 left in the first half, the Broncos had the Colts backed up at their own 13. If ever there was a time the Broncos could have gotten into the game, this was it.

But they didn't plan for what happened next. They didn't plan for a QB and receiver reading their defense like it was a children's book.

They didn't plan for Stokley.

In the huddle, Stokley told Manning that Broncos linebacker Al Wilson wasn't getting deep enough to cover his middle-area zone. "I can beat him," he said. On the first play, Stokley lined up in the slot and took off on a post route. Manning, as he did on every play Sunday, read it perfectly.

Stokley caught Manning's pass at midfield, Wilson hopelessly behind him, and took it from there, moving faster downfield than Britney Spears down the wedding aisle. Suddenly it was 28-3. Game over. Manning-playoff-jinx over. Colts-can't-win-in-January over. Stokley's-impactless-season over.

"Other than my touchdown in the Super Bowl," Stokley said, referring to his days in Baltimore in 2000, "that was the biggest play of my career."

Stokley is listed at 5-foot-11, 187 pounds, but allowing him those measurements is United-Way generous. He is very strong for his size and remarkably cut, but stands nowhere near 5-11. He didn't come to the NFL on a red carpet; instead, he starred at Southwestern Louisiana (now known as Louisiana at Lafayette) and barely made the Ravens as a fourth-round pick. After four seasons that saw him top out at 24 receptions, he signed with Indianapolis, where he had something more than a chance to play: He had a chance to play with Manning. "That's why I came here," he says.

The two go back. Stokley has been a counselor at Manning's passing academy summer camp for the past four years. From afar he'd seen Manning develop into a precocious, but turnover-prone quarterback who put up huge passing numbers but never seemed to win big games, at least not in January. From the sideline this year he saw Manning morph into a co-MVP. Today, from the other end of a spiral, he saw his friend turn in a 5-touchdown masterpiece that was as statistically perfect (158.3 rating) as any game ever. "It meant more to me after seeing everything he'd been through," he said. "Nobody can say anything about Peyton anymore."

All of it adds up to the scariest bye-less playoff team since the Ravens in 2000, a team that heads into Kansas City next Sunday riding a six-game win streak against the Chiefs, a team that's relying on its tiny third receiver more than ever. What makes Stokley's show even stranger is that it came after a week in which he was the most interviewed player at Colts camp. Not by media members, however, but by Indy's players. He's one of two Colts who have a Super Bowl ring, so suddenly he went from a guy who barely played to a leader. "All week long guys were like, 'How is it to win? What's it like?'" he said. "I just said that sometimes it's hard to get that first one."

It got a little easier on Sunday.

Seth Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.