Record is great, but titles will be Manning's measure

Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The big question won't be answered until the playoffs begin and even the NFL's biggest control freak is helpless to do anything thing about that at the moment.

But the record came exactly the way Peyton Manning wanted it - in the flow of a game, with the clock ticking down, and something left to play for. And by now, you're probably familiar, too, with a few of the details in what sounded like a harmonic convergence Sunday under the big top in Indianapolis.

How Colts owner Jim Irsay dispatched his private jet to pick up Manning's snowbound parents in Memphis and whisk them back to Indy in time to see the final 9 minutes of the game and overtime. And how Archie and Olivia Manning's middle son sidled over to wide receiver Brandon Stokley with a minute left in regulation, called a play the Colts had never used in a game, then called a dummy audible at the line to confuse the Chargers and almost everyone else in the building, and then threw the ball toward the end zone even before Stokley made his final cut at the 5.

''The ball was on me so quick, I'm just glad I was able to get my hands up,'' Stokley said. ''I didn't have time to think about it.

''It would have been embarrassing, to turn around and get hit with it in the face.''

The best thing from Manning's standpoint, however, wasn't the perfect timing, even though he conceded, ''I was afraid I might have thrown it too early.''

No, the best part was that touchdown pass No. 49 of the season, the one that put Dan Marino in Manning's rearview mirror, came with the Colts still needing a 2-point conversion to force the extra period, putting off the celebrations until later. Those didn't commence until Manning had engineered a 61-yard drive in overtime to set up Mike Vanderjagt's field goal that secured Indianapolis' eighth straight win and the No. 3 seed in the AFC for the playoffs.

''I think Johnny Unitas would have been proud of that drive,'' Manning said afterward, which is as much celebrating as he allowed himself.

Just seven seasons into a career, Manning's link to some of the greatest quarterbacks ever is already secure. By just about any measure, he's off to the best start of any passer in history. What remains to be seen, though, is whether Manning winds up linked with prolific quarterbacks like Marino or Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton and Jim Kelly or consistent Super Bowl winners like Joe Montana.

Championships are an unyielding measure in a team game like football, where even the quarterback can only do so much. Marino couldn't will himself a running game - ever - and John Elway had to wait until he was 37 for all the other pieces to fall into place.

Manning has been a staple on rotisserie league teams since he strolled into the league - he's having arguably the best season ever while pulling the strings for one of the most productive offenses ever. But as a student of the game, Manning knows that for all the glossy numbers Marino put up, his predecessor is still most remembered for never passing his team to a Super Bowl win. Maybe that's why, for all his impressive work in the pocket, Manning does just as much maneuvering in interviews.

He put the team's goal to win a championship at the top of his priority list when he reported for training camp and he's managed to keep it there, no matter how much the hype focused on his individual performances. Manning shares the credit every bit as deliberately as he shares the ball, having learned that the fastest way to improve on a 2-4 record in the playoffs is to have his teammates as prepared and motivated as he is.

And so it should have come as no surprise that Dominic Rhodes, the part-time running back who returned a kick 88 yards in the final quarter to make the comeback against the Chargers possible, said afterward, ''As much as it's his, I feel like it's my record, too.

''When I get old, in my 50s or whatnot, I'll say I was on that team when he threw that touchdown. I was a part of everything he's done, and we've done,'' Rhodes said. ''It's a special feeling.''

Even Manning couldn't deny that much.

''It's an individual thing, but it meant a lot to a lot of people. And that,'' he said, ''means something to me.''

But it will mean much more if the Colts are still playing when February rolls around.

''We are happy about the regular-season records,'' Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said, staying on message. ''But we are looking for the big prize once the playoffs start.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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