Gunning for history

The Colts are an unusual NFL franchise in that they have two separate histories - the Baltimore era and the Indianapolis era.

Baltimore fans do not acknowledge the second half of the history book. When the moving vans pulled out of Baltimore that snowy March night in 1984, the Colts ceased to exist in their eyes. Then-Colts owner Robert Irsay took the trophies, leaving Baltimore with the memories: Johnny Unitas, Memorial Stadium, the Colts Marching Band, four NFL championships.

Almost as a curse for moving, the Colts could not return to the Super Bowl. Until now. Indianapolis won its first AFC championship since 1970 with a 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots on Jan. 21, earning a trip to the Super Bowl to play the Chicago Bears.

Finally, a small bridge has been built linking the history of the Colts in both Baltimore and Indianapolis - championship quarterbacking. Baltimore had Unitas, the best ever. Indianapolis has Peyton Manning, the best passer of his generation.

Unitas died in 2002. He hadn't played a down of football since 1973. Manning wasn't even born until 1976. But Manning knows the Unitas legend as well as he knows his own playbook.

Manning fancies himself as a football historian. His father, Archie, is a part of that history - a former first-round NFL draft pick and Pro Bowl quarterback in the 1970s.

"I'd ask my dad who his favorite players were growing up," Manning said, "and he'd always say Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas.

"He described Unitas as the ultimate field general. To me, that's a great description of a quarterback. When someone describes a high school or college player as a really good field general, that's a terrific compliment. Johnny Unitas was the ultimate. If people say he was the greatest of all time, I'd have to believe them."

Manning was reminded of that at his AFC semifinal game this month. The Colts returned to Baltimore to play the Ravens before a hostile and record crowd. A blue and white sign 10 yards long was draped behind the Colts bench: "19 will always be greater than 18." Unitas wore 19, Manning 18.

But what the Baltimore fans think didn't matter to Manning. He already knew what 19 thought of him.

"I saw him at the Kentucky Derby a couple of times," Manning said. "I saw him twice when we played in Baltimore. He'd tell me, 'I like the way you play the game.' What I hoped he meant by that was the way I manage the game, the freedom to call some of my own plays.

"I used to hear him say quarterbacks today don't call their own plays and they're not really quarterbacks. I don't necessarily agree with that. But my dad called his own plays his whole career. That's what quarterbacks used to do. So it's a little bit of a throwback."

Manning borrowed a page from the Unitas quarterbacking handbook in the AFC title game against the Patriots. With the clock ticking precious seconds away, he didn't wait for a play to come in from the sideline. Manning took a suggestion from a receiver on the field and called a play.

Trailing 34-31 in the closing minutes at his own 31, Manning fired a square-in to tight end Bryan Fletcher on first-and-10. But linebacker Eric Alexander was right there to break up the pass.

"This is scary to say, because who knows where his ego will go from here," Manning said, "but that was Bryan's call. He said, 'Give me a corner route on that guy."'

Manning did - the very next play - and a wide-open Fletcher turned the game around with a 32-yard reception that moved the Colts into New England territory at the 37. Four plays later, the Colts punched in the winning touchdown.

The good quarterbacks watch, listen and learn from what transpires on the field. Unitas was the master at it. .

That's why Manning holds Unitas in such high regard. Quarterbacks are supposed to be more than mere passers. They are supposed to be leaders. Unitas led the Colts to three NFL championships. That's what Manning aspires to be to this generation of Colts - a championship quarterback.

Manning has what he calls a "Quarterback Wall" at his home. He has framed pictures of himself posing with many of the great ones, past and present.

"I've got a couple favorites," Manning said. "I've got a picture with Sammy Baugh, which is pretty unique. I've got another picture of me presenting Unitas with a pair of black high tops."

Manning gets his chance to fill Unitas' shoes on Sunday.

He can become to Indianapolis what Unitas was to Baltimore. Then there will be an NFL championship quarterback in each half of the franchise history book.

Colts vs. Bears

Records: Indianapolis (15-4), Chicago (15-3)

TV: CBS-7 (pregame show begins at 11 a.m.; kickoff will be about 3:25 p.m.)

Line: Colts by 7