Almost exactly three years ago, on a rainy night in Miami, Peyton Manning stepped to the interview podium to answer questions about his MVP performance in the Indianapolis Colts' 29-17 Super Bowl win over Chicago.
You have never seen an athlete less impressed with himself. His responses were so bloodless as to be almost unusable. He dutifully credited his teammates and coaching staff. He complimented the Chicago team.
And when asked about the personal significance of the MVP award, and his status among the game’s elite, Manning pretty much shrugged.
He had come to work, punched the clock, won the Super Bowl, and looked like just another mill worker ready to catch a bus back home.
An artist with the ethic of a craftsman, Manning doesn’t satisfy easily, and that’s why I expect him to be in the same position this evening in Miami, respectfully accepting the MVP honor after leading the Colts to a Super Bowl win.
He’s not an infallible machine. Everybody can be beaten, and that includes Manning. He throws the occasional interception. And this is a team game, after all. But you play the odds when you predict, and odds are that Peyton Manning is going to be the best player on the field whenever he suits up.
To pick Indianapolis is not an insult to a New Orleans Saints team that features a fabulous quarterback, a potent and balanced offense, and a defense that forces turnovers. Given the dreary history of the franchise, a New Orleans win would make an uplifting story.
But the Colts are almost a touchdown favorite because of a slightly better defense, and the presence of Peyton Manning – one of the best in the history of the game, perhaps at the peak of his career.
In their last Super Bowl win, the Colts faced a Bears team ranked No. 5 in the NFL in defense, and put up 29 points despite a flurry of turnovers in a downpour.
Today, Manning faces a Saints defense ranked 25th in the league, 26th against the pass. So, he’s going to score and he’s going to score often, with such frequency that even Drew Brees, the talented Saints receivers, and a versatile gang of running backs won’t be able to stay close.
It will be argued that the Saints will benefit from having had two weeks to study ways to stop Manning. Look, people have been working on that futile endeavor for 12 seasons.
And while Manning is not infallible, he is unflappable. Let’s say you get a lead on the Colts … Manning has led them to seven fourth-quarter comeback wins this season. Down 17-6 to the Jets in the AFC title game, Manning and the Colts scored the next 24 points.
Or, some will suggest that the Saints will be more highly motivated than the Colts, and that emotional advantage will carry them. Maybe for a while, but not 60 minutes.
Or that the Colts, having so recently won a Super Bowl, will be overconfident and thereby vulnerable to the upset. Does anybody really see Manning allowing that?
Besides, these guys “threw away” the chance at an undefeated season by resting key players in later games to stay fresh for a Super Bowl run. They’re invested; they’re not overlooking this one.
They can’t run the ball, of course, ranking last in the NFL. Yes, they ran it so poorly that they picked up 4.2 yards per carry in the NFC Championship Game against the Jets, the league’s top defense.
Does any of that really matter as long as Manning stays on the field?
In the end, they’ve been here before and won the game on the same field, with many of the same guys.
Twelve seasons into his career, with his fourth league MVP award on his résumé, Manning still refused to assess his standing in the game when asked about it this week.
“When my career is over, I’ll look back and reflect,” he told reporters. “But it’s so year-to-year right now.”
Who’s he kidding? He doesn’t look at it on a year-to-year basis. He attacks this game one snap at a time, and that’s why the Saints are in trouble.
Colts 35, Saints 24.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440