Gridiron: Manning aiming to throw family ties aside in Colts' bid for glory
Quarterback holds key to Super Bowl firmly in his hands, says Paolo Bandini
IT is a testament to the Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell that whenever one of his players has been asked about the status of an injured team-mate in the build-up to their Super Bowl meeting with the New Orleans Saints, the same three words have almost always cropped up in their response: "Next man up."
Ever since taking over last January, Caldwell has argued consistently that success is achieved through shared team responsibility and the understanding that nobody is irreplaceable.
Well, almost nobody. Caldwell's theory may hold true at most positions, but quarterback is always an exception, and Peyton Manning may just be the exception. As well as being voted the league's Most Valuable Player for an unprecedented fourth time this season, Manning holds the record for the most 4,000-yard passing seasons with 10, and was recently declared Best Player on the Planet by espn.com.
"Peyton epitomises everything good in professional athletics," Caldwell says. "He's sharp, he's hard-working, very diligent about his preparation. He takes everything seriously. Every single snap, every single meeting. He's a guy that is a real joy to coach."
But despite all the personal accolades and a phenomenal regular season winning record, tonight's game will be only Manning's second appearance in a Super Bowl. Manning's Colts have qualified for the play-offs in 10 of the last 11 years, but only made it to the AFC Championship game three times.
The Colts did triumph the one time they reached the Super Bowl, beating the Chicago Bears 29-17 in 2007 -- the last time the game was in Miami.
Regardless of whether the Colts win, however, the present season might still go down as one of Manning's finest. Although his performances have been statistically more impressive in the past, all through this season he has had to pick up the slack for a rushing offence that ranked last in the league.
Against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional play-off round, the Colts' starting running-back Joseph Addai managed only 23 yards on 11 carries, and though things were better against the New York Jets in the Championship game, it was still up to Manning to kick-start the offence after they fell 17-6 behind before half-time.
Manning's favourite target, the wide-receiver Marvin Harrison, was released in the off-season. Instead of looking to a man with whom he had played for 12 years, Manning has had to help develop the second-year receiver Pierre Garcon and the rookie Austin Collie -- yet the offence has not missed a beat. If anything, Manning may spread the ball around among his receivers better now than he used to.
The pressure will be on Manning to put his team on his shoulders once again tonight in what is widely expected to be a shoot-out between two high-powered passing offences. The Saints' Drew Brees had the best passer rating in the league during the regular season and his team is capable of putting up points quickly.
Manning may also have to overcome some unique emotions ahead of the game, as he prepares to go up against the team his father, Archie, spent most of his career with. Archie was quarterback of the Saints from 1971-82 and though he has wasted no time in saying he will support his son's team, the family have strong ties to New Orleans, having been based in Louisiana for so many years.
"I am excited for New Orleans," Manning says of getting to play the Saints. "It's a special place to me."
Super Bowl XLIV,
BBC1, Sky Sports 1, 11.25pm