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Columnist says Manning stepped up

Peyton Manning silenced all of his critics this weekend with a strong performance in Super Bowl XLI, in which he led his Indianapolis Colts to victory against the Chicago Bears. Manning has been the best statistical quarterback over the past decade, but has been plagued by the fact that he had never made it to the biggest stage in sports. Shaky performances in his postseason career only helped to corroborate this critique.

Ever since being drafted in 1998 as the first overall pick, Manning has been condemned as the perennial “choke artist” who would never win the Big One. The facts were hard to fight – he made seven Pro Bowls and won two MVP awards based on the merits of his regular season statistics, yet had struggled every year in the playoffs. He had skidded to a 3-6 career postseason record. Although he is only 30 years old, there were many comparisons between him and Dan Marino, another statistical giant with no rings. But, all that changed this past weekend.

The game did not start as Manning and his Colts wanted. Chicago’s kick-returner extraordinaire, Devin Hester, ran back the opening kickoff, putting the Colts behind 7-0 15 seconds into the game. Manning took the field with everyone expecting him to mess up. On the first possession, Manning threw an interception to safety Chris Harris. At this point, the entire viewing audience was asking themselves, “Will he blow it again?”

The answer proved to be a resounding “no.” Manning would go on to complete 25 of his 38 pass attempts for 247 yards, the most important of which was a soft pass to a wide open Reggie Wayne for a touchdown on the Colts’ next offensive possession. After looking the defender off, Manning lobbed the ball to Wayne, who was 10 yards away from the closest defender.

The Bears answered back with a touchdown pass at the end of the first quarter, making the score 14-6. The TD was the lone bright spot for the bewildered Rex Grossman, who never got into a rhythm, en route to a 20-of-28 performance worth just 165 yards. From this point on, it was all Indianapolis.

After an Adam Vinatieri field goal narrowed the gap at 14-9, the Colts forced a three-and-out from the Chicago offense, and seized the lead with a one-yard run by Dominic Rhodes in the middle of the second quarter. The third quarter saw three field goals, two by Vinatieri and one by Chicago kicker Robbie Gould, to make the score 22-17 in favor of Indy headed into the final stanza.

The high-powered Indianapolis offense tried only to play keep away and protect the narrow lead. The Colts didn’t need to score, because the inept Chicago offense could hardly gain a first down against the surprisingly stern Colts’ D. Under pressure, Grossman threw up a prayer that was picked off by Kelvin Hayden and returned 56 yards to extend the lead to the final, 29-17.

The single largest question coming into the big game was which would falter first: the Colts’ defense (which ranked 23rd overall and dead last against the run) or the Bears’ offense (which features Rex Grossman at quarterback). The answer was, of course, the Bears’ O. They were able to muster only 265 yards and converted just three of their 10 third-down attempts.

The story of the game was turnovers. The rain poured down for the entire contest, which led to a combined eight team turnovers. Time of possession also proved to be a telling stat, as Indy had the ball for almost two-thirds of the game, resulting in a worn out Bears defense that was helpless against the relentless no-huddle offense of the Colts.

Manning was cool, calm and collected throughout the contest. Most of his incompletions were dropped balls by his receivers, and the only mistake he made was the interception on the first possession. Unlike in other years, the team did not have to lean on its star QB, as a balanced running attack from Rhodes and rookie Joseph Addai proved unstoppable against the third-ranked Bears’ defense.

Manning did not try to take over; he simply played to win the game. He probably could have tossed a 35-of-60 game for 400 yards, but he played smart, conservative football that characterizes his coach, Tony Dungy. With the win, Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

This game will go down as a defining moment not only in Manning’s career, but in this decade of football. The Brady Era is over. We will look back on Feb. 4, 2007, and say that Peyton Manning secured his indisputable place as one of the game’s best ever. Welcome to the Manning Era, and you haven’t seen anything yet.

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