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Manning has all the answers

January 28, 2007|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

With a Super Bowl date with the Chicago Bears next Sunday, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning may well be reflecting on two things:

* The Colts are finally back in the championship game that was their winter home in the old Johnny Unitas days.

* And it is Manning himself, shaking off an unhappy old habit, who has made it possible.

Last week, the Colts, a bust in the waning days of too many regular seasons lately, won a big one at last as Manning finally looked like a great football player. But the truth is that Manning played even better than he looked.

Against a team that has had his number, Manning, plagued by one lost lead after another, fighting off the pressure of his reputation as a quarterback who can't win in the playoffs, came from behind not once but four times to beat the New England Patriots.

For this was Tom Brady he was trying to beat, had to beat, did beat in a storybook game of aggressive passing power.

Manning comes on

First of all, Brady ran off to a 21-3 lead, helped significantly when a pass by Manning was intercepted and run back for a touchdown by Patriots defensive back Asante Samuel.

After wasting a couple of possessions trying to get that touchdown back in one play, Manning settled down and started driving -- 80 yards to a field goal, then 76 yards to a touchdown, and then 76 yards to the touchdown and two-point conversion that tied the score, 21-21.

Brady responded with a sweet touch pass to a leaping Jabar Gaffney at the back of the end zone for a touchdown.

That might have taken the heart out of Manning earlier in his career. Instead, he answered with a 67-yard drive and tied the score again, 28-28.

Brady drove to a field goal. Manning drove to a field goal.

Then, as Brady has so often in the past, he led the Patriots to one more field goal -- which should have won the game.

But this time, his drive wasn't late enough. He left much too much time on the clock. And this time he was playing a different Peyton Manning.

Historically, Manning has been emotional in clutch games. He has been known to snap at his blockers, or walk off the field after an interception with head down and shoulders slumped. But off the evidence of this game, Manning has matured.

In this game, Manning was unflappable, serenely confident, as cool under pressure as, well, Brady.

In three minutes, he drove 80 yards to the winning touchdown, completing two big passes to get in position.

He also left Brady only one minute after the touchdown. It wasn't enough.

Finally beating his playoff bugaboo, Manning played with superlative skill.

He threw straight; he threw extremely quickly; he bought himself time by sliding around in the pocket; he exhibited bulletproof confidence and tenacity.

And, as always, he demonstrated alert field generalship, a rare commodity among modern quarterbacks.

He did it all, he did it brilliantly, and a trip to the Super Bowl is his just reward.

Chargers exhausted them

As spectacular as Manning was, he had some help beating the Patriots -- from the San Diego Chargers. The Patriots had outlasted San Diego the week before, but it took everything they had to do it.

In the week leading up to the game against the Colts, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick complained of how exhausted the Chargers game had left his team.

This is why:

* On every defensive down against San Diego, Patriots defensive players had to exert themselves to contain LaDainian Tomlinson.

* On virtually every offensive down, Brady had to throw against the terrific Chargers defense, wearing down his receivers, his blockers, and his own ability to concentrate.

Brady said after that game that he had never worked so hard for a victory. The course of the ensuing game against Manning and the Colts is thus, perhaps, instructive.

The Patriots got away to their 21-3 lead, which seemed at the time an accurate representation of the relative strengths of the Patriots and the Colts in recent playoff games.

It wasn't until the final minutes of the first half, with the Patriots obviously tiring, that Manning began his first comeback run. He completed all four comeback rallies in the second half, with the Patriots exhausted and frequently playing second-stringers.

Grossman over-coached

People have been wondering what will happen in the Super Bowl when the Colts, led by Manning, meet the Bears, led by Rex Grossman. The Chicago quarterback has been wonderfully inconsistent this year.

His first five games were fabulous. His next six or seven were filled with interceptions. In his most recent six games -- except for a meaningless one against the Green Bay Packers at the end of the regular season -- he has played solidly.

The explanation for what seems to be inconsistency is simple -- but it's not widely understood.

After the fifth game of the season, Bears coaches tried to do a makeover on Grossman's footwork. At first he was thrown off completely but appears to have adjusted.

Against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, he completed four consecutive assertive passes, including the touchdown throw that put the Saints away.

That's the way Grossman was playing at the start of the season, when his coaches called first-down passes frequently. That's the way Grossman will have to play for the Bears to have any chance against Manning and the Colts.

Will his coaches give him the chance?

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