In pursuit of a victory that would recast his reputation, his heart racing with agitation, Peyton Manning called the boldest and most controversial audible of his career. Twelve days before he was to face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Manning stood up in a meeting room at the Indianapolis Colts' training facility and delivered an unpopular decree to his teammates, who had gathered to talk logistics before their week-long trip to South Florida. Colts president Bill Polian, one of the NFL's most autocratic executives, had announced that there would be restrictions on visitors to the team's hotel in Fort Lauderdale but that players would be free to spend time with family members and other guests in the confines of their own rooms. Unnerved, Manning essentially threw out Polian's play for one more to his liking. "I don't think we should let anyone up in the rooms," Manning told the stunned group of players and coaches. "This is a business trip, and I don't want any distractions. I don't want any crying kids next to me while I'm trying to study."
That Manning would get his way was a foregone conclusion—Indy has been Peyton's Place since his arrival as the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft—but grumblings of dissent still filled the room. "We were heated," recalls veteran cornerback Nick Harper. "People were saying, 'We're grown-ass men. We've got wives and kids, and we'll make those decisions for ourselves.' But, you know, it turned out all right."
Hyperfocused to his heart's desire, Manning was at his Super Sunday best in leading the Colts to a 29–17 victory before 74,512 fans at Dolphin Stadium. In earning MVP honors and shedding his can't-win-the-big-one tag—as did Indy coach Tony Dungy, who defeated his close friend and former assistant Lovie Smith in a matchup of the first two African-American head coaches in Super Bowl history—Manning overcame a sketchy start and seized control of a sloppy game in a driving rainstorm. Yet the seven-time All-Pro needed plenty of help to claim the Colts' first championship since their move to Indianapolis in 1984, and relying on his teammates to provide it was another sign of his maturation. A year after appearing to criticize his offensive linemen following a painful playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers—"I'm trying to be a good teammate here," he said to reporters while discussing pass-protection problems—Manning now understands, as he said late Sunday night in a nearly empty locker room, "that everybody's got to do his part, and you have to trust them all to do that."
You might say that after years of racking up superlative statistics, Manning has found it takes 53 to tango—though that would evoke images of the embarrassing video from his performance in a New Orleans middle school play that surfaced after he referred to it in a media-day interview, and which cracked up his teammates as they watched it on an ESPN broadcast during a meal at the team's hotel.
On Sunday night fans were dancing in the streets of Indy thanks to players such as rookie halfback Joseph Addai (143 rushing and receiving yards), his backup Dominic Rhodes (21 carries, 113 yards) and second-team cornerback Kelvin Hayden, whose 56-yard interception return for a touchdown with 11:59 remaining provided the game's final points. By then Manning had solved Chicago's formidable defense with a barrage of underneath passes and timely run calls while Indy's far less heralded D had repelled quarterback Rex Grossman and limited the Bears to just a field goal after the 4:34 mark of the first quarter. "Everyone thinks this is about Peyton's legacy," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said afterward, "but listen—this is a 53-man team. Peyton doesn't do everything by himself, and at the end of the day defense wins championships. That still holds up."
That owner Jimmy Irsay—whose late father, Bob, abruptly uprooted the Colts and moved them from Baltimore to Indy—held up the Lombardi Trophy at game's end was a testament to this team's grit, perseverance and togetherness. "We're so tight-knit," Irsay said between celebratory hugs in the locker room. "Our bonds have been forged through some real-life tragedies, and those things make you stronger."
The suicide of Dungy's 18-year-old son, James, in December 2005 started the Colts on an emotional, character-testing journey. The shocking home playoff loss in January '06 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers was followed by, among other events, the free-agent departure of All-Pro running back Edgerrin James, a popular veteran who signed with the Arizona Cardinals (and who sent Manning a pregame text message wishing him luck on Sunday); the death of Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne's older brother, Rashad, in an automobile accident in September; and a late-season stretch (following a 9–0 start) in which Indy lost three of four games, including a 44–17 drubbing by the Jacksonville Jaguars in which the maligned run defense gave up an astounding 375 yards. Seeded third in the AFC after a 12–4 regular season, the Colts surprisingly shut down both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens on the ground. Manning then rallied Indy from a 21–3 deficit to pull out a dramatic 38–34 win over the Colts' longtime nemesis, the New England Patriots, in the AFC Championship Game.
As the football world anticipated Manning's crowning achievement, the prickly passer refused to play along. While many of the Colts spent part of Super Bowl week enjoying the South Beach scene, Manning, after taking 20 players to dinner in Fort Lauderdale following the team's arrival on Jan. 29, was holed up at the Colts' hotel. "I'm having the best time of my life, honestly," Manning's wife, Ashley, said last Saturday while socializing with family members at South Beach's swank Shore Club hotel. "But Peyton could care less about going out. He's doing it his way, and that's the way he wants it."
In an effort to replicate his routine in Indy, where he watches game film in his basement, Manning had the team provide a similar setup on the Marriott Harbor Beach resort's third floor, two below the off-limits level. He even listened to the same music on bus rides to and from practice that he did during car trips throughout the playoffs: a mix CD given to him by Ashley for Christmas. But instead of copying tunes like Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days to an iPod,Manning went retro. "Ashley bought me one of those Discman things for, like, eight bucks," he said. "Reggie Wayne and [linebacker] Cato June couldn't believe someone still made those anymore. They were taking pictures of it because they thought it was so funny. But hey, I kept to the routine."
Not every Colts player found humor in Manning's intensity. The no-visitors policy had some teammates complaining about the franchise's "Peyton Rules." And after Dungy and offensive coordinator Tom Moore asked for Manning's input in planning the Wednesday practice session, one player groused that the team should be renamed the Indianapolis Peytons.
If the Peytons were a tad tight heading into their meeting with the Bears, the start of the game did nothing to alleviate the stress. Chicago rookie Devin Hester, the former University of Miami star who had scored six special teams touchdowns during the regular season, took the opening kickoff, danced up the middle, burst to hi sright and struck like a Hurricane. His 92-yard dash was the first-ever score on the opening play of a Super Bowl and put the Colts in an immediate 7–0 hole. Dungy, who in his speech to his players the previous night had warned that they'd have to overcome "a storm" at some point during the game, shook his head and thought, I wish I weren't that prophetic.
Indy's first play from scrimmage called for tight end Dallas Clark to run a seam route underneath he safeties, but he broke it inside instead. "We only had that first play picked out for about two weeks," said Manning, "and he ran the wrong route." Manning's throw was deflected by Brian Urlacher, the All-Pro middle linebacker, whose typically impressive effort would include 10 tackles. Later in the drive the jumpy Colts were called for a pair of false-start penalties,the second of which set up third-and-13 from the Indy 41. Hoping to hit his favorite target, Pro Bowl wideout Marvin Harrison, Manning made his lone mistake of the day, hanging a deep ball that strong safety Chris Harris picked off. Gulp. Said Manning, "We looked like a team that had never played in the Super Bowl."
Manning settled the Colts' nerves with 6:58 left in the first quarter. On third-and-10 from the Indy 47 he called 66 D X-Pump, a play Moore installed for the Super Bowl that called for Wayne, lined up to the left side, to run an in-and-go route designed to exploit Chicago's base Cover Two zone scheme. The hope was that Bears free safety Danieal Manning (no relation) would bite on the pump-fake. What Peyton got was even more ideal—Chicago's Manning, who seemed mistakenly to be playing man coverage while the rest of his teammates followed their zone assignments,jumped tight end Ben Utecht's inside route, leaving Wayne alone in the middle of the field. Facing pressure from defensive tackle Tank Johnson, Manning held his ground long enough to let Wayne break free, then delivered a rainbow that,from the receiver's perspective, "seemed like it hung in the air forever." Wayne spun around to catch the ball inside the 20 and cruised into the end zone to complete the 53-yard touchdown; Indy trailed 7—6 after punter Hunter Smith botched the hold on the extra point.
Kicking short to avoid another runback by Hester (a practice Indy followed several more times later in the game), the Colts got the ball when Robert Mathis forced a Gabe Reid fumble and Tyjuan Hagler recovered. But on the next play Manning and Addai failed to connect on a handoff, and Mark Anderson, the Bears' rookie defensive end, pounced on the ball. Remarkably, it was the first of two back-to-back fumble sequences in the first half. (The Blooper Bowl would include eight turnovers, five by Chicago.) During the play Manning banged the already sprained thumb on his passing hand that had required a pregame pain-killing injection, but the football gods were taking care of him. "With a wet ball," he explained later, "you've got to hold it light to make it go where you want. So the bad thumb kind of helped me because I couldn't grip it real hard."
Before Manning (25 of 38, 247 yards, one touchdown) took hold of the game, the Bears managed one show of offensive force. A 52-yard run by halfback Thomas Jones set up Grossman's four-yard touchdown pass to wideout Muhsin Muhammad, giving Chicago a 14–6 lead with 4:34 left in the first quarter. At that point, to paraphrase halftime performer Prince, many in the decidedly pro-Bears crowd were ready to party like it was 1985. But Indy pulled ahead before halftime on the first of three Adam Vinatieri field goals and Rhodes's one-yard scoring run. With a 16–14 lead, the Colts' increasingly energized defenders were confident the game was theirs.
"We knew," said Harper, who re-aggravated a left high-ankle sprain late in the second quarter and did not return. "We wanted to put the ball in Grossman's hands. Now I can say what I'd really felt all week: We'd seen the film, and we knew there was no way in hell they were going to beat us in the passing game."
When Grossman got the ball at his own 20 trailing 22–17 with 13:38 remaining in the game, he had a chance to prove Harper wrong and answer all the critics who'd dogged him for much of his first full season as a starter. Instead, he under threw a sideline pass to Muhammad that Hayden caught and returned to break the game open. Less than two minutes after that mistake, Grossman lobbed a deep ball for wideout Bernard Berrian that was intercepted by free safety Bob Sanders, and the only remaining suspense was whether Dungy, who'd never gotten a championship dousing, would receive a Gatorade bath. (He did, though in the steady rain it's a wonder the unflappable coach even noticed.)
The game had been over for an hour and a half before Manning finally showered. He didn't leave the locker room until a few minutes after midnight, when the rest of his teammates had already boarded buses that would take them to the victory party at their hotel. At 30, after so many years spent in the spotlight—that's life when you're the son of football icon Archie Manning—he'd finally earned the bling that would validate his status as one of football's enduring elite, and he wanted to get the party started. Glory days, they'll pass you by...
The rain drenched Manning's dark suit as he left the stadium and walked briskly ahead of his older brother, Cooper, and their father toward the last of the buses. Cooper looked back and, worried that Archie might be left behind amid the confusion, yelled, "Dad! Come on! We've got to go!" Archie picked up the pace, but it proved unnecessary. There, waiting at the bus's front door, was Peyton, smiling like a newly crowned champion. As his teammates could have attested, there was no way in hell that bus was leaving until the quarterback was good and ready.