Peyton Manning's golden opportunity

Few, if any, would say the Seahawks were frauds. Many would conclude Peyton was the greatest of the QBs with two rings (Elway, Staubach, Ben Roethlisberger, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Jim Plunkett and Eli). Some would make the case that, in overall résumé, Peyton had eclipsed even three-ring Brady (8-8 in his past 16 playoff games and 0-2 in Super Bowls over the past nine years). Good gracious, a few might even leap to the prisoner-of-the-moment conclusion that Peyton's sensational longevity capped off by the greatest regular season ever and a Super Bowl destruction of Sherman's defense pole-vaults Peyton past (dare I say) Montana.

For sure, I would have to rethink Peyton's greatness.

Maybe I took an unfair view of Peyton from the start because he played at the University of Tennessee, archrival to my alma mater, Vanderbilt. Peyton's increasingly happy feet made me happy when he struggled against my Commodores, and I lost more respect when he lost to Florida all three times he faced the Gators.

I've been pretty good predicting the NFL success of college QBs -- with one glaring swing and miss: I said I would take Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning. I was not alone. In fact, that was the first and last time I took to the bank what several college coaches told me: Leaf was a gunslinger who played quarterback like a linebacker and was made of tougher stuff than Peyton Manning. I obviously had no idea Leaf battled demons that soon would destroy his career.

Then again, I must admit I've always preferred my all-time great quarterbacks to play with more rifle-armed flair than Peyton ever has. Give me Elway's finger-breaking fastball and jockish swagger. Or Staubach's miracle-making fire. Or Dan Marino's arrogant rocketry. Or Favre firing a touchdown pass with every ounce of his excitable being.

From the start, Peyton played NFL quarterback as if he were a hyper chess master. He created a game above the mud-and-blood game of football, a mind game with which he could toy with superior athletes. His arm strength was pretty average, but his decision-making and release were speed of light and his accuracy deadly.

Peyton Manning made playing quarterback look as easy as driving a Buick. He rarely needed his helmet and pads. Today, he pretty much looks like the man next door who tosses around the football in the yard with the kids.

Year after year in Indianapolis, Peyton hoarded regular-season wins. Yet, despite all the weapons at his fingertips --  Marvin Harrison for 11 seasons, Reggie Wayne for 10, Dallas Clark for eight, Edgerrin James for seven -- those teams too often failed on the playoff stage against more physical teams that could turn the game back into football.

Peyton finally broke through in his ninth season, beating the Bears 29-17 in the rain in Super Bowl XLI. Peyton's team was a seven-point favorite. Degree of difficulty: four.

But give Peyton this: The real Super Bowl that season was the AFC Championship Game in Indy, in which the Colts rallied from 21-6 down against New England to win 38-34. Peyton threw for 349 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception.

For now, that stands as Peyton's greatest postseason achievement.

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