- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

MIAMI.

We probably should have seen this Super Bowl coming, as crazily as the postseason had gone for the Colts. Didn’t they win their first two playoff games with defense, of all things — then spot the Patriots an 18-point lead … and live to tell about it?

That should have been the tip-off right there to expect the unexpected last night, though maybe not a Bears touchdown on the opening kickoff followed by a six-turnover (Indianapolis 3, Chicago 3) first half. If you’d predicted that beforehand, you would have been whisked away to drug testing — if not taken directly to rehab.

But Indy weathered those slapstick first 30 minutes, along with the wet conditions, the same way it has handled everything that’s been thrown at it this season. They’ve finally grown up, the Colts have. You can’t call them “soft” any more. Not after they outslugged the rugged Bears 29-17 to claim their first Lombardi Trophy since leaving Baltimore.

After some early hiccups, the Colts essentially took Chicago apart. Forget the final score; this was total domination, folks — or close to it. At one point early in the second half, Indianapolis had run 58 plays to the Bears’ 19. On both sides of the ball, the Colts were a club possessed.

“I’m so proud of this team,” Tony Dungy said, “because I think we showed this season we can win a bunch of different ways — with offense, with defense, whatever it takes. Tonight, for instance, we couldn’t throw the ball the way we wanted to. We had to run it and play defense, and that’s tough because that’s how the Bears win games. To win playing that way, I think it says a lot about this team.”

Chicago has a swell defense, but it wasn’t up to dealing with all of Indianapolis’ weapons. Not many defenses are. The Bears had to figure Peyton Manning was going to get his yards — in this case 247 on 25-for-38 passing — but they knew they couldn’t allow the Colts’ running backs much room, not if they wanted to stay in the game.

This wasn’t the Saints they were playing, though. In the NFC title game, New Orleans paid only lip service to the run — and their lack of offensive balance ultimately cost them. Indy, however, wasn’t going to make it that easy for the Bears. Manning may be renowned for his passing, but he also has two very capable runners in Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes … and isn’t the least bit shy about using them.

If just one of them had a big night against Chicago, the Colts would have been in good shape. Much to the Bears’ horror, though, both of them did. Addai racked up 143 yards from scrimmage (77 rushing, 66 receiving) and Rhodes ran for 113 and the go-ahead touchdown. By the end, Brian Urlacher and Co. were a worn-out, beaten-down bunch.

Granted, Chicago lost one of its backs, Cedric Benson, to a knee injury in the early going, but that wasn’t what decided the game. What decided the game was that a.) Indianapolis is a far more complete team; and b.) Manning is a far better quarterback than Rex Grossman.

Grossman didn’t have the train-wreck performance many imagined he’d have. He even threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad to stake the Bears to a 14-6 first quarter lead. But his limitations were never more evident than on a third-and-3 play at the Chicago 43 late in the first half, when Chicago ran the ball — and came up a yard short — rather than put its fate in Rex’s hands.

A Super Bowl club has to have a quarterback who can make the play in that situation — and who it trusts to make that play. But the Bears aren’t quite there yet with Grossman. Maybe after he gets some more experience. … He’s only, let’s not forget, 26.

Manning, however, is at the very top of his game — and was deservedly voted MVP last night. He’s an awfully dangerous quarterback now. He’s solved the Patriots Puzzle (he’s beaten them the last three times he’s faced them), and against the Bears he proved he can, indeed, win the big one. You have to wonder whether he isn’t going to turn into Hercules Unchained these next few years, adding to his ring total and his Hall of Fame credentials.

The biggest difference in him this season — and it was particularly obvious in the playoffs — is that he doesn’t let the twists and turns of a game affect him as much as he used to. The comeback against New England was one for the ages, and his composure in the early stages against Chicago was crucial to getting the Colts on track.

After all, in the first quarter, it looked like the teams were playing with a greased pigskin. They kept passing the ball back and forth — interception, fumbled kickoff, botched handoff, another fumble, bungled center exchange, another fumble. After a while, you wondered whether the stat crew would start crediting the quarterbacks with a completion if they successfully executed a snap or handoff.

But Manning withstood the storm — literally and figuratively — and won himself a Super Bowl. “How do you like that?” he said. “I come down to Miami and play in the soaking rain. But we never panicked and came away with a great win.”

And now that he’s done it once, who’s to say he can’t do it again?

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