- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

FOXBORO, Mass. - Midway through the second quarter, Peyton Manning began to get That Look — the look we’ve seen before in games that weren’t going the Colts’ way, the look of dismay/disgust/disarray that says, “No seven-on-seven passing scrimmage today.”

This was after a particularly discouraging series in which Indianapolis, down 3-0, had gone backward instead of forward — 12 yards’ worth. There had been a sack-fumble, a near interception, a not-even-close incompletion. On the plus side, the Colts did manage to get the punt off without incident.

Why must it always be so for Manning? Why must it always be swirling snow and swarming Patriots and Tom Brady, the Bart Starr of his generation, ultimately showing him up in the playoffs? Why can’t one of these games ever be played in the Indy Greenhouse, where receivers run free and Mother Nature’s season tickets have been revoked?

More to the point, if Manning can’t beat the Patriots, can’t get to the Super Bowl, in a season in which he throws for 49 touchdowns and rewrites entire pages of the record book, if he can’t beat the Patriots when they’re without their two starting cornerbacks and Pro Bowl defensive tackle, when exactly can he beat them?

Maybe never, you’d have to conclude, after watching the Patriots disarm Manning once again yesterday, holding him without a TD throw in a 20-3 victory at Gillette Stadium. It was, in many respects, as dismal a performance as his four-pick day against the Pats in last year’s AFC title game, if only because he was shut down this time not by Ty Law, Tyrone Poole and Richard Seymour but by, among others, Randall Gay, Troy Brown and Jarvis Green. (Good thing New England decided not to activate Earthwind Moreland, the cornerback named after a rock band, or Peyton would have had nowhere to hide.)

Had the Patriots’ defense not gone into a prevent mode late in the first half, the NFL’s near-unanimous MVP might not have produced any points at all. Granted, the conditions, including a wind-chill of 16 degrees, weren’t ideal; the Colts were victimized by “some rare drops,” as their QB put it. But Bill Belichick’s and Romeo Crennel’s scheming — and Manning’s continuing inability to rise to the occasion against quality competition — had a lot more to do with it. The Pats, with their dizzying array of packages, had No. 18 utterly bamboozled. He couldn’t find Marvin Harrison, couldn’t find Reggie Wayne, appeared in dire need of windshield wipers, really.

“Most other teams, when they have starters [injured], Pro Bowlers, you really lick your chops,” Manning said. “You feel you can expose them. But with [the Patriots], it doesn’t really seem to matter who’s in there. Their core guys elevate everybody else’s play. … It was just very disappointing. We had an opportunity and didn’t take advantage of it.”

A year ago, Indy president Bill Polian complained bitterly after his club lost the AFC championship game. The officials, he thought, allowed way too much physicality in the New England secondary. The league responded to his concerns — Polian being an influential fellow — by cracking down on illegal contact this season and giving receivers more room to roam. The result: One of the biggest years for passers in NFL history, a veritable turkey shoot.

But even with the Pats’ DBs playing with one forearm taped behind their backs, Manning couldn’t get the better of them in the Monday Night opener this season and came up short again yesterday. He’s still young (28), sure, but doesn’t a “great” quarterback — at some point — have a great game in the playoffs against a defense more formidable than the Broncos’ or the Chiefs’?

To his credit, Manning didn’t duck the issue. “I’ve always felt a player defines himself in games like these,” he said. “[But] I’m kinda changing those thoughts.”

Out of self-preservation, probably. He’s 0-4 against the Patriots the last two years, and will make another trip to the dentist — I mean Foxboro — next season.

Tony Dungy, his loyal coach, was quick to rise to his defense. “Steve Young was in our building the other day,” Dungy said, “and the same thing was said of him for a long while — and now he’s going to go in the Hall of Fame. I can remember when John Elway wouldn’t quite win a Super Bowl, and we were all hoping that he’d win one. The thing we have to do is just continue to try to improve our team and see if we can get that Super Bowl win.”

But how much can you improve on 49 touchdown passes? How much can you improve on three 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,500-yard back — not to mention a tight end, Dallas Clark, who had a 100-yard day in the first round of the playoffs? (Obviously, something’s missing, though, because the Colts, after racking up 522 points in the regular season, managed just a field goal yesterday.)

What keeps Manning from jumping off a cliff is that “we keep giving ourselves chances,” he said. “Some teams lost in the playoffs last year, felt sorry for themselves and went 5-11 this year. We keep giving ourselves chances. Eventually, we feel, it will be our time.”

And he might be right. But for every Steve Young there’s a Dan Marino. For every John Elway there’s a Sonny Jurgensen.

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