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Original Issue

One Step Short Of Olympus

Confetti was still falling on the joyous Saints and their fans, and already Peyton Manning had come to the press tent to face the inquisition. Only moments earlier he had been in a helmet and pads, desperately trying to bring the Colts from behind again, yet here he was showered and dressed in a flash, his dark tie perfectly knotted. Some quarterbacks, having just lost a Super Bowl that they were expected to win, might have found it hard to pull themselves together so quickly, or they might have barked their answers out of frustration. That's not Manning's way, although maybe it should be.

And so the questions came. Did the New Orleans defense confuse him? What happened on the fourth-quarter interception he threw that doomed his team? Manning patiently answered each one, but really the reporters were all asking the same thing: What's missing? What keeps Peyton Manning from achieving the victories that mark greatness? Is he not ruthless enough, like Michael Jordan? Is he not reliable enough, like Derek Jeter? Is he not cool enough under pressure, like Tom Brady? Manning is as gifted, as industrious, as committed as any of those big winners, so why doesn't he have a fistful of championship rings like they do?

Just when he was expected to make the leap from great player to great champion, Manning turned in one of those games that keep him a notch below the legends. He put up pretty statistics (333 yards passing) and an ugly result, a 31--17 loss to the inspired Saints. The select circle of players that Manning appeared ready to join will tell you that the only way to gain entry is to win championships—often. One title, as Manning owns, won't cut it. Spending post--Super Bowl press conferences finding 18 different ways to say you're disappointed won't do the trick either.

Unless you are a New Orleans fan (in which case you're probably still hungover), it's likely that you're disappointed too, both in Manning and for him. He is humble and classy in victory and defeat, and there's a reason he makes all those commercials—he's smart and funny. All season he had been at the top of his game, physically and intellectually, so much so that almost everyone was convinced that his falling short in the biggest moments was a thing of the past. But after Sunday, no matter how likable he is or how well he has played, it will be a long time before Manning inspires confidence when a title is on the line. It's like The Who sang at halftime on Sunday: We won't get fooled again.

It would be unfair, of course, to pin all the blame for Indianapolis's loss on Manning. As it turns out, he's not really a human supercomputer capable of instantly decoding defensive schemes, as he appeared to be. The Saints, who clearly won the battle of wits, were kinder to Manning than history will be, at least as far as Super Bowl XLIV is concerned. "He's still one of the top two or three quarterbacks ever," said middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. "He's still going to the Hall of Fame and into the record books." A week ago, though, the discussion was whether Manning was the greatest quarterback of all. That was before the pass to Reggie Wayne, a play he would normally complete blindfolded, turned into the 74-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Tracy Porter. That was before the three empty drives in the fourth quarter, when Indy needed him to be the leader who had orchestrated seven fourth-quarter comebacks in 2009.

Suddenly we're reminded that he never could beat Florida when he was an All-America at Tennessee. We remember the playoff losses to the Chargers and to the Patriots and, as the No. 1 seed, to the Steelers. We realize that Manning has only a 9--9 record in the postseason as a pro. More and more, Manning's Super Bowl win over the Bears in 2007—the one that supposedly erased his reputation as a choker—seems an aberration.

If that means that he's considered unworthy of a place next to quarterbacks such as Brady and Joe Montana, Manning professes not to care. "I don't play for that," he says. "I don't concern myself with legacies and whatnot. I play each season to win the Super Bowl, and I don't look at any bigger picture than that."

Maybe Manning needs to be a little more of an s.o.b. Not that he's a milquetoast; we've seen him cuss out his linemen and receivers when necessary. But sometimes he plays the good soldier when he ought to act like the commanding officer. Consider the Colts' decision to sit Manning and other starters against the Jets in Week 16, ruining Indy's chance for an undefeated season with two games left. At least publicly Manning went along with the decision, saying it was his job to do what coach Jim Caldwell and president Bill Polian told him to do. Would Montana have stood, or sat, for that? Couldn't the Colts do with a little boldness?

By late Sunday the grinding frustration Manning showed on the sideline during the Saints' long marches had turned into stoic acceptance. Once again he heads into the off-season without the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Maybe he needs to ask himself if he's missing more than that.

Talk Back

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What's missing? What keeps Manning from achieving the victories that mark greatness? Why doesn't he have a fistful of rings?