Manning fails to deliver in postseason script
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Were he even interested in the whole dubious notion, this business of validation, Peyton Manning would have agreed that there was no better formula for putting to rest any doubt that he was the greatest quarterback the game has ever seen.
It was all there for him Sunday night, laid out shot for shot like an ultra-slick screenplay, the final scene beginning at his 30-yard line with 5:35 remaining in the Super Bowl, a viciously fought Super Bowl on the same lawn on which he'd become a champion just three years before.
Seventy yards later, the plot went, he'd tie this score, 24-24, and then in the final seconds of the South Florida night, he'd whip a tight spiral that would turn over in slow motion for all of NFL Films eternity, the one that would nestle safely in the hands of someone in blue and white, and that would be that.
Peyton Manning, Hall of Famer, the best there ever was in this game.
Tracy Porter went off script -- way, way, way off script.
Manning was throwing the sixth pass of his career signature drive, having completed four of the first five. He was calling third-and-5 at the New Orleans Saints' 31, and it was hardly the most complicated thing in Indianapolis' King James Playbook.
Just a little curl to Reggie Wayne, who'd had better nights but was still Manning's go-to wideout; it was just the very kind of thing that made the Colts virtually unstoppable. But between Manning and Wayne came an interloper not unknown to these moments. Wasn't Tracy Porter the very same Saints defensive back who caught the last gasp pass of Brett Favre only a fortnight ago?
Porter intercepted Manning at the 26 for the only turnover of Super Bowl 44 and bolted upfield. He may as well have been carrying the Lombardi Trophy, because no one was going to catch him anyway, and so therefore was written an unprecedented English sentence:
The Saints won the Super Bowl.
"It was great film study by me," Porter said in some version of humility. "We knew that on third-and-short they stack, and they like the outside release for the slant. It was great film study, a great jump and a great play."
Forty-three times in his NFL life, Manning had put together crisp, fourth-quarter or overtime winning drives in a career some had begun to describe as singular, seven of those 43 ended with passes to Reggie Wayne. But on this cool night by the seashore, he was not the iconic Manning, even at 31 for 45 and 333 yards. Fact is, he wasn't the best passer on the field.
Drew Brees, who completed a record-breaking 70.6 percent of his passes this season, completed 82 percent of 'em last night. He was 32 of 39, hit on 10 in a row at one point in the second half, brought the Saints out of a 10-0 hole despite head coach Sean Payton eschewing an easy field goal in the first half and coming away with nothing.
Since Brees arrived in New Orleans from San Diego to launch the Payton administration in 2006, the Saints have had the best offense in the NFL, 392 yards per game, and still it was somehow in the shadow of the Manning show in Indianapolis.
"You have to give all the credit to the Saints," Manning said in his customary postgame suit and tie. "They made the critical plays when they had to and we didn't and that was the difference. I'm sorry for our fans that we weren't able to get it done."
Manning and Brees, the only quarterbacks in history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in four consecutive seasons, brought a combined 8,702 passing yards to the culmination of this season, the most productive duo since Joe Montana and Dan Marino faced off in Super Bowl XX after combining for just 12 more.
A big part of what enabled last night's aerial show was the stunning inability of either defense to pressure the passer. Manning was not sacked, wasn't so much as bumped more than thrice, and Brees was sacked only once by Dwight Freeney.
The Saints' defense remained a statistical enigma, allowing another 432 yards and somehow prevailing against another top tier quarterback. New Orleans became the first team to beat three quarterbacks who'd previously won Super Bowls -- Kurt Warner, Favre and Manning. The week before those three played the Saints, they combined for 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. Against New Orleans, they had two touchdowns and four interceptions.
"In the second half they played lights out against a good offense and got the turnover," Payton said. "This was a great team win."
That's true to the extent that the Saints' defense played desperately in the face of the anticipated Manning heroics, but all of them together were still vulnerable right up until the minute Manning let that pass go toward Wayne.
"Porter just made a great play on it," Manning said. "It's kind of a play we run a lot, but Porter just got a great break on the ball, you have to give him all the credit."
That's just the problem though. You don't. And many won't. They'll remember Super Bowl 44 as the night Manning didn't deliver. In the postseason, he's 9-9.
First Published February 8, 2010 12:00 am