MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Peyton Manning is nothing less than the greatest quarterback of the 21st century. He is the player almost anyone with more than a thimble full of football knowledge would take first if starting a new franchise.
Although only 30, his numbers are stunning in the story they tell of his excellence. Already no one in NFL history has had more seasons of throwing for more than 4,000 yards, nor does anyone have as many consecutive seasons of 25 or more touchdown passes. His first nine seasons, he was a rookie in 1998, are significantly more impressive than those of Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas or anyone.
He's durable, having started every game of his nine-year career with the Indianapolis Colts. He's humble, invariably deflecting praise and turning it toward his teammates. He's a winner, having been a primary reason the Colts have won 60 games in the past five years and advanced to the playoffs in all of those season. He's resourceful, constantly befuddling opposing defenses by changing plays at the line of scrimmage -- or pretending to change them. He's naturally gifted, being the son of a successful quarterback and blessed with a marvelous throwing arm.
There is every reason to believe by the time he retires he will own every passing record worth owning and not be just the greatest quarterback of the 21st century but the greatest quarterback ever.
Despite such a resume, there are people who maintain his career is incomplete. There are people who insist that the Colts must beat the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl for Manning to pass the true test of greatness.
That is the height of nonsense.
If Manning loses Sunday, his greatness is assured.
If he loses Sunday and retires Monday, his greatness is assured.
Winning a big game is not necessarily a sign of greatness, just as failing to win such a game is not an indication of failure or mediocrity.
If winning a Super Bowl were a sign of greatness, Trent Dilfer, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien would be under consideration for the Hall of Fame instead of answers to trivia questions.
Most recently, the Steelers won last season in spite of Ben Roethlisberger. Against Seattle, Roethlisberger completed only 9 of 21 passes. He threw two interceptions, and his passer rating was 22.6. It's possible greatness remains ahead for Roethlisberger. But it shouldn't be based on what he did in Super Bowl XL.
By contrast, Dan Marino, the quarterback who holds most of the important NFL passing records, never won a Super Bowl. For a time, it diminished his reputation. Over time, though, people realized the stupidity of such a stance and gave Marino the acclaim he deserved.
It's a team game. The quarterback might be the most important player on the field, but he cannot do it alone. John Elway, for example, was criticized for much of his career for failing to win a Super Bowl. But when he won two at the end of his career, he was widely acclaimed, although he had played better when not winning the Super Bowl. But the time Denver won with Elway, running back Terrell Davis, not the quarterback, was the focal point of the offense.
Any belief that Manning couldn't win the big one should have been erased Jan. 21, when he rallied the Colts from a 21-3 deficit to a 38-34 win against the New England Patriots in the AFC title game. He capped that comeback by leading a seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive that began with 2 minutes, 17 seconds remaining and which was played out under pressure every bit as great as can be found in a Super Bowl.
In fact, since getting to the Super Bowl is almost as big as winning it, it can be argued there's more pressure in a conference title game.
If ever there were a doubt about Manning's legacy -- and there should not have been -- that ended it. It will not take a repeat or anything close to it to stamp him with greatness and to put him in his proper place among the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
"He's the complete quarterback," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He's an excellent leader and his teammates believe in him."
The lack of respect he receives from some doesn't bother Manning.
"I don't get into the monkey [off my back] and vindication. I don't play that card," he said.
Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy took a shot at the skeptics.
"[The New England win] probably won't shut anybody up until we win one [Super Bowl]," he said. "It'll still be, 'Why can't you win the Super Bowl?'
"But Peyton Manning is a great player, and anybody who doesn't know that doesn't know football."