FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Super Bowls create lasting legacies. They can affirm greatness. They can expose pretenders.
And no one feels their influence more than quarterbacks.
Win a Super Bowl, and your career receives a significant boost. Add the game's Most Valuable Player award to the mix, and it climbs to an even higher level. Throw in an historic body of work, and you're virtually guaranteed of a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Win two Super Bowls -- something just 10 quarterbacks have ever done -- along with the other achievements? Now you're in the discussion for being perhaps the best quarterback to ever put on a uniform.
And if Manning leads the Indianapolis Colts to victory Sunday, he'll have done more than merely gotten the better of his New Orleans Saints counterpart, Drew Brees. Manning will have out-dueled the man widely considered to be the second-best quarterback in the NFL and who finished second, by a wide margin, in league MVP voting.
If Brees should guide the Saints to victory, his legacy would benefit a great deal as well, although not as much as Manning's would with a triumph. As New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork pointed out, "Brees has been under the radar for a long time, but now that he is in the Super Bowl, I think a lot of people are starting to see the real Drew Brees." A win would solidify Brees' place among the elite quarterbacks in the game, right up with Manning and the Patriots' Tom Brady, but he still would need additional prolific seasons before he could be considered one of the all-time greats.
Even with a loss, Manning's legacy certainly wouldn't be destroyed. He has done more than enough during his 12-year NFL career -- and especially during the Colts' 14-2 regular season and in playoff victories over the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets -- to firmly establish his all-time-great status.
Brady's three Super Bowl rings -- along with his two Super Bowl MVP awards, a league MVP honor, Offensive Player of the Year recognition and ownership of the single-season touchdown pass record that once belonged to Manning -- make a compelling argument for him to be regarded as the best quarterback in NFL history. Or, at the very least, those credentials provide strong fodder for a debate over whether Brady is more deserving of that recognition than Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers.
Still, it could be argued that Manning already has done enough to legitimately be included in that conversation, too. Besides setting a standard for league MVP honors, he also holds the NFL record for most 300-yard passing games in the playoffs, including the 377 he had against the Jets in the AFC Championship Game. The Colts have won at least 12 games in seven of the years that he has been their quarterback. He has an impressive streak of career starts dating to when he was a rookie: 192 in the regular season and 17 in the playoffs. And if he ends up playing for at least 17 seasons, or two less than Brett Favre, Manning likely will shatter Favre's career records for passing yards, touchdowns, completions and attempts. One mark the highly efficient Manning isn't likely to touch is the one Favre has for interceptions.
"He's the best, very best," Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said of Manning while at the Pro Bowl. "No one has played like him for 12 years. I know. I've played against him (during an 11-year career)."
Jets coach Rex Ryan is one of the leading defensive-schemers in the game. As defensive coordinator of the Ravens, he built some of the best and most creative units the NFL has ever seen. It only took him a year at the Jets' helm to assemble the top-ranked defense in the league. Before the AFC title game, Ryan said the following about Manning: "He's the best I've ever seen." The Jets' humbling, 30-17 loss -- due in large part to Manning's three touchdown passes -- certainly did nothing to change Ryan's opinion.
The game served as one of the highest points in Manning's career. Ryan came at Manning with a wide assortment of blitzes and coverages, practically everything he had in his defensive playbook. After some early struggles, Manning was able to sort things out and take control of the game.
By early in the second half, Manning was conducting a clinic for Ryan and the rest of the Jets' defense. Manning was able to rely upon his typically ultra-intensive study of videotape to prepare for everything the Jets would throw his way. He went back to the 2005 season to find material from when Ryan's Ravens defense faced the Colts.
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Of all of Manning's many gifts, perhaps the most freakish is his capacity to remember almost everything he sees and then invest considerable time in figuring out how to apply it and practice every play (with the entire offense and with only his receivers) until it is executed to perfection. Perhaps that should be a given for the son of a quarterback, former Saints great Archie Manning. But there's more to it than that. Jim Caldwell, the Colts' first-year coach, says his quarterback has "hypermnesia," a condition that allows for exceptionally exact or vivid memory.
"You'll find a lot of people that can certainly take in volumes of information and read and read, but their comprehension … maybe they get some, maybe they don't," Caldwell told reporters in Indianapolis last week. "But the other level is being able to apply it when you need it, and he can do all of those things and he can do those things in the heat of the battle, under pressure, with the game on the line. That's what makes him so very unusual."
Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett compares Manning's beautiful mind to that of chess great Bobby Fischer. As the quarterback of the Colts' defense, Brackett can appreciate Manning's ability to have a counter move ready for whatever the opponent does.
Example: If Manning sees a cornerback sitting on a slant route on one play, he'll be certain to hit him with a slant-and-go on the next -- and likely come up with a big gain.
"I don't think there's a moment where his mind isn't working," Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne told reporters last week. "That's just the kind of player he is. He wants everything to be as perfect as possible. I mean, he's a winner. He loves the game. He's been a student of the game since he was knee-high. You want your quarterback to be that kind of competitor."
All of which is part of Manning's legacy. Now it's time for him to put that legacy on the line.