Manning won’t falter this time

Mike Ashcraft

I couldn’t helping feeling a little sorry for Peyton Manning last January.

In last year’s AFC divisional playoff against Pittsburgh , his Super Bowl dreams sailed wide to the right. Way wide to the right.

“He missed it,” Manning said on the sideline as his former idiot-kicker Mike Vanderjagt sent the football sailing off target. Yet another chapter in his disappointing postseason book had been written as the Steelers advanced, and ultimately, won Super Bowl XL.

A year later, Manning is basking in the Miami sunshine as he and the Colts prepare to duel with the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

But you will have to excuse the son of Archie, big brother of Eli, if he isn’t in the mood to chill on the beach. It’s safe to say his entire career hinges on this game.

A giant “Mr. Yuk” sticker has clung to Manning since college.

“Yes, he puts up the numbers,” his critics say, “but he can’t win the big one.”

There has been little to dispute that claim. After Manning graduated from Tennessee in 1997 without a championship, Tee Martin stepped in and guided the Volunteers to a title the following year.

Manning has watched Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson and Ben Roethlisberger — players nowhere near his caliber — hoist the Lombardi Trophy while his seasons kept coming to bitter endings.

And, on top of that, the first pick of the ’98 Draft has had a front row seat while former 199th pick Tom Brady led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles. Twice, Manning’s Colts were dispatched by Brady’s Pats.

Which is why, when it was determined that the Colts and Patriots would meet in the AFC Championship, I was convinced Manning was going home early yet again.

He had been having perhaps his worst postseason, tossing five interceptions despite defeating Kansas City and Baltimore.

During the first half of that game, I appeared prophetic. New England led 21-6 l, one score coming courtesy of a Manning pick that was taken to the house.

But in the second half, Manning did something I hadn’t seen before.

He came out slinging. He threw for 349 yards and one touchdown. And he guided the Colts to an improbable 38-34 victory, completing the largest comeback in AFC title history. What was more impressive than the comeback was Manning’s will. He refused to be denied.

With one half-for-the-ages, he ripped off the demons. He stared failure down, finally overcoming it.

Which is why Sunday, even against the Bears’ vaunted defense, should be a breeze for Manning. The weight of the football world is off his shoulders.

Manning has the numbers. Now, he just needs that elusive ring to cement his place next to the Montanas, Bradys and Bradshaws. He’ll get that Sunday.He’s ready to light up the Dolphin Stadium scoreboard like a Christmas tree.

Manning exudes class, but I wouldn’t blame him if he tells his detractors to “rub some dirt on it” after he is crowned a champion.

Contact Mike Ashcraft at [email protected].