There's a pretty good chance the Super Bowl XLI performance of a player with the surname Manning will determine the fate of the Chicago Bears in Sunday night's championship game.
The twist: The game might be as much about Ricky Manning as Peyton.
Yep, if you're looking for a player who is crucial to the Chicago game plan but who might still be flying a tad below the radar in terms of public consciousness, Manning is a defender worthy of close attention. There is considerable speculation that the Bears will lean heavily on a nickel scheme to try to counter tight end Dallas Clark, who has become a go-to receiver for Peyton Manning in the playoffs, and leads the Colts with 17 postseason catches.
And a big part of that speculation is that Ricky Manning, and not middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, will draw the assignment of shadowing Clark. In fact, Manning has done nothing this week to dispel the rumor that he often will be locked up on the Colts' tight end.
"My role is going to be very important," said Manning, one of the NFL's premier nickel cornerbacks. "It's important against any offense that uses a lot of three-wide receiver sets, and they use Dallas Clark as the third wide receiver."
Indeed, with standout slot receiver Brandon Stokley on injured reserve with a ruptured Achilles, and venerable Ricky Proehl having done little to replace him adequately, versatile Clark essentially has become Indianapolis' third wideout. The four-year veteran is flexible enough to align in-line as a conventional tight end, can move out into the slot and even can flank 15-20 yards wide to the sideline.
It could be a gamble for Chicago to rely too much on a nickel look. That would mean having to stop the Indianapolis running game without strongside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer on the field. It also would leave Manning covering the much bigger Clark. But the Bears might not have much choice against Clark, who has a league-best 281 receiving yards in the playoffs.
Manning, though, also has enjoyed some success in postseason play. The three-year veteran, signed by the Bears as a restricted free agent last spring, has five playoff interceptions in his career. That includes one pickoff this year and four in 2003, three of them in that year's NFC Championship Game, when Manning was with the Carolina Panthers.
No one is counting on Manning repeating that feat Sunday, but if he can control Clark in the middle of the field, the former UCLA standout will provide the Bears an opportunity for an upset victory.
Beyond the performance of Ricky Manning, the Bears will win if …
1. The Chicago cornerback tandem of Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman can keep Colts wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne from making big plays, which could be a daunting task. Despite their reputation as a Cover 2 defense, the Bears played roughly 45 percent man coverage in the second half of the season and in the playoffs. That means Chicago could have a couple of Cover 2 cornerbacks, guys who don't run especially well and are known to overreact to double moves, playing one-on-one on the outside. If the Chicago cornerbacks bite on the play fakes from Peyton Manning, the NFL's best sleight-of-hand artist, it could be a long day. So Tillman and Vasher, who love to move up on the ball in front of them, have to maintain position and get a bit physical with the Colts' wideouts.