Manning rewrites ending to old story

January 22, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

INDIANAPOLIS -- No, Peyton Manning said, he doesn't acknowledge terms like validation and monkeys off the backs. And, he repeated, the concept of his legacy "is a little deep for me."

He was destroying the sportswriter's thesaurus quote by quote. Luckily, he left us "redemption."

It's hard enough to redeem a reputation in one game, even harder to do it in the course of the game, harder still when the redeemed one dug himself the hole in the first place.

Manning's legacy - fractured as it was going into last night's AFC championship game grudge match against his arch-nemesis from New England - was getting set more firmly in stone with every step Asante Samuel took toward the end zone with Manning's errant pass five and a half minutes into the second quarter.

But, it seemed, just as quickly as he had thrown his Indianapolis Colts out of another chance at the Super Bowl, Manning threw them right back into it. And he finished the job. From the depths of a 21-3 deficit, it had seemed that a victory was impossible, even ridiculous.

Doubly so considering it had to come against the Patriots. And Bill Belichick. And Tom Brady. And all the cut-and-paste players at nearly every position who seem to soak up big-moment brilliance like cheap, replaceable sponges.

To beat that? Sure. Why not beat them all, 38-34, with a touchdown with a minute left to take a lead for the only time all night, and seal it with an interception of the pristine Brady?

"We knew it was going to come to that," Colts coach Tony Dungy said of the drama down the stretch - and despite his own reputation for coming up just a tad short, he had his players, including the quarterback, believing it, even when it was 21-3. "We said we can't play against mystique. We can't play against the past."

Dungy also said he fully expected Manning to get picked apart for, once again, past failures. "Peyton Manning is a great football player," he said, "and anybody who doesn't think that doesn't know football."

All Manning had to do was prove it to the universe when it mattered most, when quarterbacks are truly judged. He did, and along the way created a postseason game, and memory, for the ages. Legacy rescued, career validated, reputation redeemed, monkey removed from back.

And, by the way, city and franchise saved.

It won't go down easy in certain cities, but Indianapolis does qualify as "long-suffering." All that business of Baltimore sticking a tongue out at the team that abandoned it and the city that stole it, talking about how we've got a trophy and you haven't even gotten there? That argument loses its punch two weeks from now, provided the Colts play like the prohibitive favorites they are against the Bears.

If you had turned away after that Samuel pick and touchdown, in horror or boredom or disgust at another same-old, same-old Colts-Patriots playoff game, you would have been justified. But you would have been mighty disappointed to miss what happened after that.

You might not have recognized the player engineering the whole thing. He looked familiar, an awful lot like the guy who piles up records with such cool and calm and precision and artistry in the regular season.

After that interception - and after the ensuing Colts possession, which began at their 17 and ended at their 3, with a punt from beneath their goal post - that Manning looked like the postseason version, the anti-Brady.

Then came Colts scores on their next four possessions. One at the end of the half to break the spell somewhat, with a field goal. Then a touchdown drive to start the second half. Then the game-tying score - to the backup defensive tackle-goal line fullback-tackle eligible, Dan Klecko. (Was this a playoff record for touchdowns scored by offensive linemen? Technically, because that's where he lined up, Klecko's was one of three.)

Then Manning got the Colts into ties two more times, after the Patriots roused themselves and remembered who they were. When they re-took the lead the last time at 34-31, Manning answered ... by going three-and-out. Yikes. But then, so did the Patriots. Now it was time- "our time," as the Colts had insisted all week. On their 20, 2:17 left, one timeout, that vaunted, legendary Belichick-devised defense lying in wait.

Manning picked his teeth with it. Didn't even mess around with leaving it up to the foot of Mr. Clutch, Adam Vinatieri. On this day, Manning wasn't going to let anyone else be Mr. Clutch. His biggest worry on the final drive? "We wanted to score a touchdown, but we didn't want to score too fast," he said. "We didn't want to give Tom Brady that much time."

Hey, what was that about not playing mystiques and not playing the past?

Never mind. Brady made the final mistake. Manning ran every quarterback's favorite play, the one Brady has gotten to run so often - victory formation, the last kneel-down. He got to walk through the confetti, put on the locker-room cap and shirt, talk about how the old failures didn't mean as much as others made of it.

But, all told, Brady got out-Bradyed, by just about the last guy you'd expect. It was as if the sky had turned green and the grass blue. This is not how things go in the NFL. Except that they do now.

You'd say it was poetic justice, but Manning doesn't really acknowledge that concept, either.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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