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Peyton Manning -time to step up


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Manning bristles as playoff questions resurface

INDIANAPOLIS - Peyton Manning can't escape the inevitable playoff questions.

Will his legacy be determined by postseason successes or failures? Why hasn't he already taken the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl? What makes this year different?

The two-time MVP probably has a better chance of outrunning Dwight Freeney than dodging the one topic that makes him squirm each January.

"I'm not into defining a career in the middle of a career," Manning said Wednesday. "I hope to play for a number of more years, and I'm not really one to reflect on my first eight years or what happens in years nine or 10. I'm excited about the opportunity we have."

Starting with Sunday's divisional round game against Pittsburgh, Manning will have another chance to answer his critics.

This time, though, everything seems to be in alignment.

For the first time in Manning's career, the Colts (14-2) have the AFC's top seed - meaning one of the league's fastest teams will play every playoff inside a dome and not have to endure the wind, snow, ice or rain until next season. They set a franchise record for wins, exorcising the demons of losing six straight to New England and nine in a row to the Steelers.

They have a defense that allowed the fewest points in the AFC, and they're facing a Steelers team that they steamrolled 26-7 in November.

But the lingering question is: Can Manning win a Super Bowl?

"I think that is probably how he'll be judged in the short run," coach Tony Dungy said. "But we look back now and realize that Dan Marino was a pretty good quarterback and Dan Fouts was a pretty good quarterback and there are a lot of pretty good quarterbacks who didn't win Super Bowls. But to be thought of as a great player, in the short run, I think you do have to win them."

At age 29, Manning has already achieved more than most players do in an entire career.

He resuscitated a Colts franchise that lost 13 games in both 1997 and 1998, has given the Colts a national identity and turned them into a perennial Super Bowl contender. He's broken Marino's single-season touchdown record and never missed a start. He holds the NFL record for most consecutive 4,000-yard seasons (six) and has won more games (77) since 1999 than any other quarterback.

Yet his inability to win "the big one" - or even get there - is the one glaring omission from an otherwise impeccable resume.

"Hopefully, he'll win two or three of them before he's done," Dungy said. "I remember a time when we didn't think John Elway or Brett Favre were very good because they didn't win one. But I don't think Peyton needs a Super Bowl to judge him as a good quarterback."

Whatever the critics say, there's little doubt Manning has leaguewide respect.

Opposing coaches often praise Manning for his diligence and his uncanny ability to dissect defenses.

And Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher figures Manning's 3-5 postseason record will eventually improve - although he would rather it not start this week.

"You can take away the run, if you want to, but then if you do that, Peyton will throw for 300 or 400 yards," Cowher said.

Manning acknowledges there have been disappointments.

In the Colts last two playoff losses, both at New England, Manning threw five interceptions and only one touchdown. There was the home loss to Tennessee in January 2000, the overtime loss at Miami 11 months later and the shutout in New York in 2003.

The difference now is that the Colts appear to have a better supporting cast.

He has two 1,000-yard receivers in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, a ground game that has given the Colts a more balanced offense and a physical defense that relies on speed to force turnovers and pressure opposing quarterbacks.

"We feel we are a better team and hopefully the guys have worked harder to be a better team and that works in our favor this year," he said.

But until Manning silences his doubters with a new piece of jewelry, Manning will continue to face the regular battery of questions.

"There's only eight teams playing right now, so you feel fortunate. You want to enjoy the journey," he said. "There's no question that the destination we want is to be in Detroit. Hopefully, all the guys have more fun Sunday."

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