For this Super Bowl's theme, try vindication

ON THE NFL

January 22, 2007|By KEN MURRAY

Peyton Manning ended six years of playoff agony with one of the most dramatic comebacks in NFL postseason history last night.

Rex Grossman finally silenced the critics who suggested the fourth-year quarterback couldn't get his team to the Super Bowl.

When the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears rendezvous in the Super Bowl in two weeks, the redemptive opportunities will be endless. Call this the Vindication Super Bowl.

It's a matchup of team strengths, Super Bowl history and contrasting Midwest cities.

With the exception of their coaches, these Super Bowl teams couldn't be more different.

The Colts win with offense, the Bears with defense.

Manning is the Colts' unquestioned leader; Grossman is viewed as the Bears' biggest weakness.

The Colts have not reached the Super Bowl since moving to Indianapolis from Baltimore in 1984. The Bears have won more NFL championships - nine - than any other team in history except the Green Bay Packers (12).

One theme certain to carry through to Miami is on the sidelines. In 40 previous Super Bowls, there has never been an African-American head coach. This year, there will be two.

On top of that, the Colts' Tony Dungy and the Bears' Lovie Smith are the best of friends. When the Bears drew a first-round bye in their NFC bracket, Smith went to Indianapolis to watch Dungy's Colts beat the Kansas City Chiefs.

Both coaches have been under scrutiny. Dungy had been 0-2 in championship games, and his inability to improve the Colts' defense in recent seasons drew some criticism. In his third season in Chicago, Smith angered his fan base by steadfastly supporting his quarterback, even though Grossman had played erratically much of the season.

Vindication?

It will start at quarterback in Miami.

In his nine NFL seasons, Manning broke more passing records than he made commercials. He has been the most recognized quarterback in the league. But he had failed, sometimes miserably, in six previous playoffs. Twice he lost to the New England Patriots.

But last night, Manning shook off his loser's reputation and buried the Patriots with a 32-point second half comeback in the AFC championship game, 38-34. The game represented a microcosm of his career failures against New England, though.

He threw a costly interception in the first half that was returned for a touchdown and the Colts fell behind, 21-3. They got a field goal just before the half to make it a 15-point game. In the second half, against a weary Patriots defense, Manning threw for 225 of his 349 yards and his only touchdown.

Three times, the Colts rallied to tie New England. Trailing 34-31 with 2:17 to play, Manning directed an 80-yard touchdown drive. When Joseph Addai scampered in from the 3, Manning had thrown off his personal albatross.

The last time the Colts' franchise reached the Super Bowl, it played in Baltimore. The team capped the 1970 season with a 16-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, a Super Bowl that was also played in Miami. The Colts had been 0-2 in AFC championship games while in Indianapolis.

The Bears earned their first Super Bowl berth since the 1985 season with a 39-14 whipping of the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game.

The Bears' defense spent much of the regular season trying to overcome Grossman's mistakes on offense. When they needed him most yesterday, though, Grossman came through with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian that blunted a budding Saints comeback.

It's unlikely the Bears will ask Grossman to outplay Manning in Miami. More likely, their defense will try to do what the Patriots couldn't - pressure Manning and force him into making mistakes in the passing game.

Vindication awaits the winner.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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