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NFL PLAYOFFS / CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS | Bill Plaschke

A different breed of horse

At long last, Manning is able to quiet the detractors

January 22, 2007|Bill Plaschke

INDIANAPOLIS — First, he prayed.

Sitting on the sidelines in the final minute of Sunday's madness, Peyton Manning put his head down, tucked his cap low, closed his eyes, pleaded for vindication.

"I don't know if you're supposed to pray for stuff like that, but I said a little prayer there," he said.

Then, he cried.

Staggering through a midfield confetti storm like a weary New Year's reveler, a victorious Peyton Manning hugged his coach, hugged his teammates, hugged his father, hugged his moment.

While finally releasing that stinking monkey.

"It's an emotional game," he said.

It was a breathless game. It was a brilliant game. It was, for the best yet most criticized quarterback of this era, the perfect game.

Peyton Manning has finally entered football's greatest stage, and he couldn't have done it any more dramatically had he swooped down from rafters on ropes.

After eight years of failure, the super quarterback is finally going to the Super Bowl, and he went through hell and Tom Brady to get there.

You want vindication? How about a 38-34 conference championship victory for his Indianapolis Colts over the rival New England Patriots? After trailing by 18 points in the first half? With a game-winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes?

It is no wonder that, when Joseph Addai scored the winning touchdown on a three-yard run with one minute remaining, Manning ran toward the opposite end zone, fists pumping, very much alone.

This game was watched by millions and played by dozens but, in the end, it was only about him.

Manning won it with the biggest comeback in championship-game history.

He won it with a thumb so sore he visibly winced.

He won it after tripping and ruining what might have been his final drive.

He won it with more touchdown passes to the opposing defensive backs than to his own receivers.

Yet, with underrated leadership and surprising cool, he won it. Period. Finally.

"Are you kidding me?" said tight end Dallas Clark. "After hearing all the questions and all the criticism, for him to come out and do it like this? He can finally go to bed tonight with a smile on his face."

It is a smile shared today by all those who love the game and the greatness that it can inspire.

This was the best non-Super Bowl game that many witnesses have ever seen. It was also the best possible ending to the most recycled story that many have ever heard.

Manning stepped into Sunday with more career touchdown passes than all but six other NFL quarterbacks. Yet, he also stepped in with a playoff loss in each of his six playoff seasons, failure upon failure.

He was facing the game's best big-game quarterback in Brady. He was facing the game's best big-game coach in Bill Belichick. He was facing a team that had twice previously knocked him out of the postseason, embarrassing him each time.

Then, early in the second quarter in the RCA Dome, he was facing a 21-3 deficit after he threw a ball behind Marvin Harrison that was intercepted by Asante Samuel and returned 39 yards for a touchdown.

He was done. The Colts were done. From everywhere, arrows were poised. He blew it again.

"You guys were already four stories deep about how Peyton Manning couldn't do it again," Clark said. "I guess you had to scratch those out."

Manning was so frustrated, he didn't even chase Samuel. He walked over to the sidelines with his head down. He drank a paper cup of water. He threw the cup in the garbage can. He plopped on the bench.

"That's not the hole you want to be in," Manning said, adding, "At that point, I really felt like I wanted to make at least seven points up somewhere.... It was kind of my fault it was 21-3."

So, as usual, he then lifted the team on his back. While Manning is famous for Mastercard commercials, he might now have to endorse Discover.

At the end of the first half, he led the team on a lengthy field-goal drive in which he discovered short passes to guys such as Clark and Aaron Moorehead.

At the start of the second half, he led the team on a lengthy touchdown drive in which he discovered that sometimes it's just easier to do it himself, as he scored on a sneak.

"It was such a methodical method that we used to clip away at the lead," Manning said, shrugging as he always does.

Then late in the third quarter, Manning discovered tackle Dan Klecko on a one-yard touchdown pass that led to a 21-21 tie.

"Who would have thought Klecko would be our top touchdown guy here?" Manning said.

Who would have imagined what would happen next?

The guy who couldn't win the big game engaged in a late-night shootout with a guy who was 9-0 when leading a playoff game at halftime. And the first guy won.

Brady's team scored after a long kickoff return. Manning led a 67-yard drive to tie it up again.

Brady hits some short passes that lead to a field goal. Manning hits on a 52-yard bomb to Clark that leads to a tying field goal.

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