- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

Peyton Manning has just completed the greatest statistical regular season of any quarterback in NFL history and one of the most astounding years for a professional athlete in any team sport.

While leading the Indianapolis Colts to a 12-4 record and a berth in the AFC playoffs, Manning’s passer rating of 121.1 shattered Steve Young’s NFL record, and his 49 touchdown passes ventured into territory many considered uninhabitable.

Very nice. Very nice, indeed. Now, can he win the Big One?

That’s right, the Dan Marino question. In Marino’s case, the answer was no. Despite a brilliant career that included the record for touchdown passes that Manning exceeded by one, Marino’s Miami Dolphins never won a Super Bowl.

It was the John Elway question, too, before he led the Denver Broncos to a pair of Super Bowl wins and shut everyone up.

For Manning, winning the Big One doesn’t necessarily mean the Super Bowl (not yet, at least) but a playoff game against a quality defensive team away from the comfy, controlled, Astroturfed confines of the RCA Dome, outside in the cold and maybe the snow and the wind and the mud. If Indianapolis beats Denver at home Sunday, Manning and the Colts will play New England in Foxboro, Mass., two weekends from now, giving Manning another chance to prove he can do it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he can,” said Jim Mora, who coached Manning from 1998 through 2001, the quarterback’s first four years in the league. “He’s special.”

He was never more special than this year, but now a new season begins.

“The regular season is over with, and it’s been a good run for us,” Manning said. “Statistically, those things don’t carry a lot of weight in the playoffs.”

Manning played well in last year’s open-air division playoff game at Kansas City, a 38-31 Colts victory, passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. But the Chiefs had one of the weakest defenses in the league.

The following week was another story. In the AFC Championship game played in the chill and snow at Foxboro, Manning was 23-for-47 for 237 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in a 24-14 loss to the Patriots, the eventual NFL champs. The Colts trailed by three when they got the ball back with 2:01 to play, but Manning threw four straight incompletions.

The season before that, Indianapolis traveled to the Meadowlands to play the New York Jets in the wild-card round. On a soft field covered by a layer of newly installed turf, the Jets demolished the Colts 41-0 as Manning completed just 14 of 37 for 137 yards and an interception. His counterpart, Chad Pennington, was 19-for-25 for 222 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.

Colts receivers dropped six passes in that game, demonstrating a universal truth that applies to any assessment of Manning’s performance, good or bad: “He’s got to have help,” Mora said.

Manning, who was named NFL offensive player of the year yesterday, has received plenty of it this year. Edgerrin James rushed for 1,548 yards. Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley became the first trio of teammates in league history with at least 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns apiece. Tight ends Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard also are dangerous receivers. And Manning was sacked fewer times (13) than any other starting quarterback.

“He’s got more weapons around him,” Mora said. “They might not be as productive outside [a domed stadium], but they’re still good enough to score points in a bad-weather situation on the road.”

Said Fox analyst and former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston: “I think the Colts are in the proverbial zone, and they’re very comfortable in that zone. The next step is to silence the people about winning outside.”

Added former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic, one of the “Mikes” on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” radio show and a television analyst for the network: “I’m sure he doesn’t want to be typecast as a good-weather or a dome quarterback. He wants to be considered an all-around, excellent quarterback who can play in any conditions. He needs to get over that hump.

“If he goes to New England and loses 45-41, it’s unfair to say that once again, Peyton Manning couldn’t do it. But if he’s in a situation where his drive could be the winning drive or the outcome of the game is in his control, certainly the pressure belongs squarely on his shoulders.”

Former Cowboys and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, now an analyst on Fox’s “NFL Sunday” program, said Manning and the Colts’ offense can win anywhere. But he acknowledged that “the best way to slow him down is to have 20-degree weather and the wind blowing and maybe a little sleet and snow and a good defensive team like New England.”

Manning might end up doing all he possibly can. But at some point, the oft-maligned Colts’ defense likely will need to play better than its reputation. Indianapolis ranked 29th in the league in total defense and yielded 127 yards a game on the ground.

On the other hand, the Colts were a more respectable 16th in scoring defense. It is a fast, aggressive unit that gets to the quarterback — end Dwight Freeney led the league in sacks — and creates turnovers. The Colts led the league in turnover margin.

“They’re quick,” Mora said. “They take the ball away, and they sack the quarterback. They get in a position to do that because they usually have the lead.”

The defense has played well at times, “but I don’t think they’re consistently very good,” Golic said. “They get run on a little too much.”

Johnson said he usually “doesn’t go overboard” on teams that have a great offense and an average defense, but he is ready to make an exception in the Colts’ case.

“I’ve never seen an offense this good, this exciting,” he said. “I think it may be good enough to overcome a mediocre defensive team.”

Unquestionably, Manning is playing better than he was a year ago and much better than two years ago when the Jets debacle occurred. Perhaps no quarterback works harder to improve. When Mora coached the New Orleans Saints, Manning, then a student at the University of Tennessee, would come by team headquarters to work out. He had access because his father, Archie, was a former Saints quarterback and was doing radio for the team at the time.

“I was on the Stairmaster, and Peyton came in to use the weight room,” said Mora, who does a weekend radio show for Fox and appears weekly on NFL Network. “It was just me and him. And he’s pumping weights like a 300-pound offensive lineman, grunting and groaning. Not like some wimpy quarterback. He’s still that way. He’s always worked hard to get better.”

Even if the Colts should lose to the Patriots again, Mora said it would be unfair to affix any loser label to Manning.

“You can’t put it all on Peyton’s shoulders,” he said. “There are a lot of big games you have to win during the season to get to the playoffs. … I don’t know if he can beat the Patriots, but he’s certainly capable of doing it. It’s a hard hurdle. But it doesn’t mean he can’t. Peyton Manning, as an individual, is capable of winning the Super Bowl.”

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