Manning, Colts Look to Shed Rep as Playoff Underachievers
And yet, throughout Manning's 11 NFL seasons of consecutive starts, 10 playoff appearances since 1998 and years of regular-season success with him under center (eight consecutive 10-win seasons), only one Lombardi Trophy sits in a glass case at the team's state-of-the-art headquarters in suburban Indianapolis.
What makes Super Bowl titles so elusive for the Colts, who are prohibitive favorites in Sunday's AFC championship game against the wild-card New York Jets, their rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and freewheeling first-year head coach Rex Ryan?
"That's just the way it's happened," All Pro tight end Dallas Clark said Thursday. "It's not like we're going to sit there and think about what could have been and what should have been. We're all grown men, we're all professionals here. We all know we weren't the better team, for whatever reason, during those times."
There is but one Super Bowl appearance on Manning's resume, the reward for a magical 2006 season that saw the Colts go 12-4 and knock off the Chiefs, Ravens and Patriots on their way to the Super Bowl XLI victory over the Bears in -- what a coincidence -- South Florida.
Until then, Manning was widely derided as a guy who couldn't deliver and win the big game, a knock dating back to his college days at Tennessee. The criticism of Manning has subsided for the most part, but the perception that Indianapolis often comes up as a playoff dog still clings to these supremely talented Colts.
"We've done some great things in the regular season to continue to get to the playoffs," Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. "But I can think of three times off-hand where we've run into a buzz saw. We've run into teams that were on a good roll and ended up to be Super Bowl champions."
In his 11 seasons with the Colts, Saturday remembers well the 2005 season's divisional loss to the wild-card (and eventual Super Bowl XL champion) Pittsburgh Steelers. He recalls the 2003 season's AFC championship loss to the Super Bowl XXXVIII winning Pats. Those were the direct roadblocks to a world title.
Then, there are two recent Indianapolis playoff trips to the woodchipper: the AFC divisional loss to the Chargers after the 2007 season at the now-imploded RCA Dome, a crushing 28-24 loss to a battered San Diego team that featured Philip Rivers hobbling on torn knee ligaments and an injured LaDainian Tomlinson playing for seven snaps; and a 2008 wild-card whiff in overtime to the same Chargers.
In both instances, the poised, experienced, loaded Indy teams were expected to prevail. But the Colts' top-ranked defense was no match for the offense's multiple (and uncharacteristic) turnovers in the '07 playoff loss. The following year, the home-standing but shorthanded Chargers rallied from a 17-14 fourth-quarter deficit almost entirely on the swift heels of running back/return man Darren Sproles.
"That's tough, when you catch a team that's playing really well. We've lost some tough ones in the playoffs," Saturday conceded. "And we've been outplayed. I remember the AFC Championship Game against New England (Jan. 18, 2004; Pats 24, Colts 14). They flat got after us. There is no excuse. They just played better than we did.
"As you go through it, you understand there were times we didn't play as well as we should have, and there were times we flat-out got beat by a better team that day. I think you look at each game individually and you know we've let some get away and we've been beat some."
Manning, as expected, is reluctant to revisit these multiple playoff disappointments, many of which saw him play at his worst. But he admits that every postseason contest -- yes, the multitude that have come his way -- is an opportunity that cannot be squandered, and these games are the ultimate seize-the-moment experiences for him and his teammates.
"Yeah, I agree with that. That's what we want to do," Manning said. "I think everybody realizes the opportunity and what's at stake. That's why, I think, everybody wants to have a good week of preparation, to put ourselves in the best position on Sunday."
Is Manning being unfairly saddled with the rap, or rep, of not matching the multiple Super Bowl achievements of his quarterback contemporaries, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger?
"It think it's the old adage that the quarterback gets too much credit and too much blame," said Colts coach Jim Caldwell, who was Manning's longtime position coach before becoming Tony Dungy's successor as head coach this season. "This is also a game where you can't do it alone. You have to have a full team effort in order to win.
"I think, overall, it's like any of us that have been involved in playoff scenarios where we've lost some, won some; we've learned something from it."
Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne said he hopes the perception that Manning can't win the big one has changed -- or better still, will take a direct hit the next three weeks during this latest Indianapolis Super Bowl journey.
"I hope it's changed. He's won a lot of big games, I believe, unless you want to go all the way back to his college days when he couldn't beat Florida," Wayne said with a laugh. "I don't know about all that, but in my opinion he's won a lot of big games.
"I feel like he had to win that Super Bowl in '06 to get some of the critics off his back ... kind of ease up. But even after he did that, there were still some people out there pointing fingers, saying, 'He can't beat this team. He can't do that.'
"I don't think there is much more you can say about the cat -- he does everything he is asked to do. He's come through in the clutch plenty of times."
Now it's up to Manning and the Colts to shift that clutch into fourth gear this season and get this franchise some Super Bowl XLIV hardware in the presentation case at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. That one Lombardi Trophy is a little lonely in there.