Manning gives precision performance against the Jets in AFC championship game

By Mike Wise
Monday, January 25, 2010; D01

INDIANAPOLIS Second quarter, late, Jets absolutely stunning the Colts -- the prodigy pulling a fast one on the legend.

If Peyton Manning was going to remain in the hallowed-quarterback conversation he was going to have to move the Colts. Quickly. If the pantheon is made up of names such as Montana, Marino, Elway, Unitas -- and a 23-year-old rookie is threatening to end the season for most of two quarters -- well, an NFL MVP finally needs to act like an NFL MVP.

It's Manning, so he responded. Threw for 300-plus yards, three touchdowns. Made the confetti rain in Lucas Oil Stadium and the loud speakers blare Will Smith's "Miami." Truly triggered the comeback with a two-minute drill before halftime that led to a defining touchdown.

"That was huge," the Colts quarterback said of the drive after a 30-17 victory had returned his franchise to the city where Indianapolis won its first Super Bowl in 2007. "It is hard to say that won the game, but it was huge.

"It reminded me of our championship three years ago against New England. We didn't exactly start the way we wanted to. We were kind of feeling them out trying to get some rhythm. "

Finding Austin Collie on a deep post route in the middle of the field for 46 yards with less than two minutes left before halftime -- the big play that led to the touchdown -- was about the most important pass he threw Sunday, an absolute strike at exactly the right moment that everyone was waiting for and had long expected.

The problem with being Peyton Manning good: There's not as much thanks and appreciation in the legacy-building business as there is assuming great performance before it happens.

Manning was expected to take the Colts downfield and give his team needed momentum at intermission, just as he was expected to perform so patiently and masterfully in a second-half clinic that propelled his franchise to its second Super Bowl in four years.

Anything else does not merely doom a season; it tarnishes a career, toys with history, stalls the fable of a former NFL quarterback who has fathered three boys -- two of which have represented the family in three of the last four Super Bowls.

"I don't want to say who said it, but one coach and a veteran player said it was the best half they'd seen him play," Archie Manning said after he had hugged his son in the tunnel leading to the Colts' jubilant locker room Sunday. "I just told him I was proud of him."

The truth: Peyton almost had to win Sunday against the underdog Jets -- or there is a good chance the Top Five Ever to Play the Position talk begins to gradually wane when No. 18 is brought up.

He had endured a ruthless first half, two quarters of missed opportunities and watching an inexperienced kid, who Pete Carroll said should have stayed in college, outgun a man with everything but a bronze bust.

Mark Sanchez, the young clock manager for Rex Ryan and these playing-with-house-money Jets, began zinging darts to Jerricho Cotchery and lead-core lines to Braylon Edwards. And Manning was hurrying throws early, collapsing under an avalanche of defensive pressure, reliving those eight playoff losses.

Let's be clear: He and the Colts don't find a way to pull out this game and the conversation Monday is about an 8-9 postseason ledger, how Manning's postseason completion percentage and quarterback rating dived below his gaudy regular season numbers. Heck, how younger brother Eli, who has never drawn comparisons to the all-time greats, has the exact same amount of Super Bowl rings.

But he shut us up. Gradually, and with the help of changing to a three-wide-receiver set from a two-tight-end formation, Manning found his range and his rhythm. His pump-and-rifle 23-yard gain on third down to Collie essentially ended the game in the fourth quarter.

"I was grinding on them, just trying to figure them out," Manning said afterward. "It was just a matter of time before we found some chinks in the armor. But it took a good long while."

Charley Casserly, the former general manager, recently argued that Manning has been more valuable to his franchise than any all-time great quarterback. Take Montana off the 49ers, Tom Brady off the Patriots, Brett Favre away from his old Packers, those franchises would not be in worse straits than the Colts if Manning weren't there. No team has been more dependent on one player throughout history than Manning, Casserly said.

John Elway also comes to mind, but that's quibbling with a very good point.

It's hard to view him in the same light as Montana, Elway or even Brady this time of year because Manning has but one ultra-dramatic postseason win, that heirloom against the Patriots in 2007 for the AFC title.

But after Sunday, he has a better-than-.500 record in the playoffs because he found a way to turn back the next where-did-they-come-from NFL team -- a la the Cardinals and the Giants of the past two seasons.

Good bloodlines, no?

As Archie and his three sons stood beside each other outside the locker room -- Peyton, Eli and Cooper -- someone mentioned a member of the Manning family will play in the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons. Peyton actually was asked if any thought was given to cryogenically freezing the source of America's first quarterbacking family.

"No, I think he's done," Peyton said of his father, as members of the press politely laughed.

Archie, the former hard-luck Saint hoping for a New Orleans victory Sunday night, smiled.

"I sure never got close to it," he began, "so maybe it's justice."

Because Peyton found his touch, his targets and his way back to Miami, he can soon boast of competing in one more Super Bowl than his brother.

That's not yet Montana or Unitas or Elway yet. But it beats Eli.

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