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Finally! Manning reaches pinacle with win

MIAMI (Feb. 4, 2007) -- Nothing was going to stop Peyton Manning from finishing this climb.

Not the sudden jolt of Devin Hester returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, a Super Bowl first.

Not a steady downpour, another Super Bowl first, that made for tricky handling of a soggy football -- a clear factor in eight turnovers in the game -- and some uncertain footing.

Not Brian Urlacher or any other member of a big, bad blitzing defense.

Not all of that media- and fan-generated pressure, built through repeated postseason failures and a reputation for coming up small in the biggest of games.

Manning delivered when it counted. His Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI. He won the Pete Rozelle Award as the game's Most Valuable Player.

Let the record show that Manning had plenty of help from his defense, which had been maligned throughout the regular season, and his running game, which wasn't supposed to have been as strong after the departure of Edgerrin James.

Manning was solid, hitting 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown while throwing an interception. But on this night, solid was good enough. Manning received MVP votes as much for his superb game management under difficult conditions as for what he did with his passing arm. He gave a good, workmanlike effort that allowed him to finally wave goodbye to a massive albatross.

Manning refused to say as much after the game. He has refused to publicly address the need to win a Super Bowl in order to validate a career in which he has produced the kind of numbers that have already assured him of a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When Manning talked of accomplishment after Super Bowl XLI, he stuck to the team theme. "It's a great feeling because I know how hard we've worked as a team," he said. "We've certainly worked hard in years past, also, and it's been hard not only to lose in the playoffs, but it's been hard to watch these other teams hoist that (Vince Lombardi) trophy, knowing that maybe the ones that have beaten you have won the Super Bowl. That's a hard pill to swallow, kind of always watching and realizing how bad you want to be out there the next year.

"It's nice to be able to hoist that trophy this year." Maybe Manning did what he was expected to do, but it was never a given. The Bears led 14-6 after the first quarter. And even after the Colts pulled in front to stay, 16-14, late in the first half, Chicago remained within striking distance because Indianapolis never delivered its knockout blow until Kelvin Hayden 's 56-yard interception return for a touchdown with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter.

But Manning and the Colts' offense still maintained control by controlling the ball. The Colts had a significant edge in time of possession, 38:04-21:56. In the second quarter, the Bears had the ball for a mere four minutes, 20 seconds. In the second and third quarters, the Colts ran 46 plays to 17 for the Bears.

The Bears pressured him constantly with an aggressive, blitz-happy defense. Manning calmly stood up to the pressure and made the throws he needed to make. No, he wasn't his typically prolific self, but it didn't matter. That's because the Colts defense did its part by coming up with five turnovers, including two interceptions and a fumble by Rex Grossman, and preventing the Bears, despite a significant size and strength advantage on their offensive line, from mounting a consistently effective ground attack. Running backs Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai did their part by tearing through Chicago's pass-conscious scheme for 190 yards (113 by Rhodes) and a touchdown (also by Rhodes).

Manning was quick to acknowledge that the MVP could have gone to one of several other teammates.

"That's been our theme all year, we have won as a team," he said. "Everybody did their part. There was no panic, nobody ever gave up. We stayed calm throughout the entire game."

Part of staying calm was not overreacting to the fact the Colts' vaunted passing game wasn't as dominant as usual. The rain caused some limitations, particularly when the Colts were in the red zone. Rather than try and force throws that could be tipped or intercepted, Manning handed off and settled for field goals.

"We were really trying to protect the ball," Manning said. "Obviously, the passing game wasn't going to be as sharp with the weather and it certainly became a factor down there in the red zone when you had points and you wanted to be sure you didn't have a tipped ball or slippery ball, so we had a couple of runs even down there on third down."

Coach Tony Dungy has never believed that Manning had anything to prove. He was convinced of his quarterback's greatness long before Manning led the Colts on their amazing, game-winning drive to beat the New England Patriots for the AFC crown. He didn't need to see him come out on top in the Super Bowl to become a believer.

The mild-mannered Dungy actually came as close as he ever comes to bristling when someone asked whether beating the Bears had filled a void in Manning's otherwise stellar body of work. As far as Dungy was concerned, winning the Super Bowl didn't suddenly make Manning a better leader or a harder worker or a more talented athlete.

"If people think you have to win a Super Bowl to know that and validate it and justify it, that's just wrong," Dungy said. "He's done it. He's got that behind him. I don't think there's anything you can say now other than this guy's a Hall-of-Fame player and one of the greatest players ever to play in the game."

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