Manning waiting to hit jackpot, but Brady just keeps cashing in

January 21, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

INDIANAPOLIS --These are the sort of things Peyton Manning must confront not just tonight in his latest quest for a Super Bowl berth, but every NFL postseason: Tom Brady is not just money in the bank, he's money in the pocket.

By now, Manning surely has seen that seminal moment Friday afternoon, when Brady held his final pre-AFC championship game news conference in Foxborough, Mass., 10 minutes before Manning's appearance in Indianapolis. In mid-answer, Brady suddenly announced that he'd discovered cash in his suit pocket.

"How cool is that? It's my lucky day," the New England Patriots' quarterback said, grinning.

Lucky day? Manning must be thinking. More like lucky career.

See, Brady's career has been one of finding winning lottery tickets lying on the street. Manning's has been about finding lottery tickets that are one number off. Manning would give just about anything for a different result tonight, when his team -- still waiting 23 years after the Colts came to town, 36 years since any team named "Colts" reached the Super Bowl -- faces a Brady-led Patriots team that has won three of the past five NFL championships, and along the way has beaten Manning's Colts twice in two tries in the playoffs.

The presence of the Patriots across the line only intensifies the contrast, and the presence of Brady -- one year younger, two fewer years of experience, 198 draft positions below (in different drafts) and three rings ahead -- multiplies it further. Plus, the guy's pulling sawbucks out of his pockets.

Manning probably would extract an overdue bill from his.

That certainly is how the fan base sees it. Said a cashier at a downtown Indianapolis drug store yesterday afternoon: "They keep giving him more and more money, so they'd better start going further and further. They ain't done it yet."

Granted, in a city teeming with Colts jerseys this weekend, three of every four worn by passers-by of every age, gender and ethnicity are Manning's No. 18. He is The Franchise not only by virtue of being the quarterback, but by being the top pick, owner of the blockbuster (and, for the most part, cap-buster) contract and multi-record-setter. (Warning to old-time Colts fans: Either skip this next sentence, or read it without food or drink in your mouth.) Next season, barring injury, he will pass Johnny Unitas on the franchise's career passing yardage and touchdown lists.

However -- and stop me if you've heard this -- Manning hasn't delivered when it counts. Not just for his team; this hasn't been a valiant-effort-in-the-face-of-defeat tale. He has earned the region's dread. Until this postseason, he had exactly one more playoff win than Michael Vick, although Manning still has one fewer postseason airport fake-water-bottle confiscation.

The gap between his average regular-season performance (for example, a 94.4 passer rating, a touchdown-to-interception ratio a fraction under 2-to-1, a winning percentage of .639) and postseason (a rating well below 90, 16 touchdown passes to 13 interceptions, a 5-6 record) is just too big to ignore. The same goes for the chasm between his playoff numbers and Brady's.

So is the fact that after two postseason performances by Manning this season that pale even in comparison to the others, the Colts have stepped up in his support and won anyway, bringing them to their second conference title game in four years.

Thus, his teammates have stuck up for him. "To point out one guy -- this, that, what he hasn't done -- I mean, you have 11 guys on the field at one time," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "So it's about 11 guys doing their jobs. As far as Peyton goes, Peyton has done a great job. We're here. He's done what he had to do to get us here."

Freeney was being more than a supportive teammate, though. The win over the Ravens last week proves it. Manning engineered the seven-plus-minute, fourth-quarter drive that locked up the game, and even if he was moving the chains with handoffs instead of throws, the effect was the same -- and the pass threaded to Dallas Clark late in the drive was vintage Manning. If only one vintage Manning pass is required to win, he and the Colts will take it.

Without question, Manning would take it.

It has been a nimble dance for him this postseason, his attempt to deflect the accusations about his postseason play and to defend his record, to make a big deal of it and not make a big deal of it at the same time. He has flipped the folksy-charm, cool-leader and intense-competitor switches on and off. It's completely understandable. He has faced the same questions for at least the past four seasons, the past eight if you go back to his first playoff appearance. He knows better than anyone by now that the only way to stop those questions is to get to a Super Bowl.

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