When Peyton Manning is inducted into the Hall of Fame, as has long seemed inevitable, he will now be able to enter the NFL's Valhalla without an asterisk against his name, the one indicating a footnote that would have read "choked in the big ones".
Manning finally dispelled all doubts in collecting the MVP award late Sunday night after leading the Indianapolis Colts to an ultimately comfortable 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
In his nine seasons in Indiana, Manning, son of the New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie, brother of the New York Giants quarterback Eli, has compiled the stats to match any of the great playmakers of the gridiron. He can now put a Super Bowl ring, and set of car keys won as MVP, on the table as well.
The Cadillac could just as easily have gone to the Colts centre Jeff Saturday, who led an offence which provided Manning with superb protection, or the running back Dominic Rhodes, who rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown as the Bears were hunted down in the rain. That it went to Manning was doubtless in part for his celebrity, as is often the case, but more important was his astonishing composure at the line of scrimmage, his maturity in picking the right option, and a superb touchdown pass which gave the Colts reason to believe.
Manning's calm under pressure was needed after the opening minute when the Bears conjured up a stunning opening. All week the Colts, having had their kick coverage exposed by the Patriots' Ellis Hobbs in the AFC Championship game, had been reminding themselves not to kick the ball to the Bears' Devin Hester. Adam Vinatieri, who with three Super Bowl rings in his locker should have known better, promptly sent the kick-off straight at the rookie. Seconds later, Vinatieri was sprawled on the grass as Hester, having weaved through the cover, passed by the kicker to score a 92-yard touchdown return, his seventh of the season and the first from a Super Bowl kick-off. There were 14 seconds on the clock. Vinatieri learned fast. Subsequent restarts were grubbers, none of which went to Hester.
It took seven minutes for the Colts to respond, during which time Manning gave up his only interception. Undeterred, he masterminded an 80-yard drive capped by a magnificent 53-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne. This was thrown despite Tank Johnson, the Bears' fearsome defensive tackle, having grabbed Manning's non-throwing left arm. Wayne's joy followed a tough few months. In October, his elder brother, Rashad, was killed in a road accident.
The extra point was aborted after Hunter Smith failed to set the ball for Vinatieri. A subsequent brace of fumbles, one each side, underlined the effect the weather was having. The Sunshine State delivered the wettest Super Bowl by far. Rain fell most of the day and did so continuously during the match, drenching the majority of the 74,512 spectators: Dolphin Stadium lacks roofing, thus Billy Joel, who sang the national anthem, and Prince, who did the half-time show, were also soaked.
In many sports, poor weather levels the playing field but, in Miami, the conditions merely emphasised the gulf in class between Manning and Rex Grossman. Manning, however, also said his measured performance was a consequence of the thumb injury he suffered against the Patriots. "It's bruised and I couldn't grip [the ball] real hard, but when it is raining you're not supposed to grip it hard so maybe I got lucky," he said.
Not that the Bears went down without a growl. A Colts fumble, after Joseph Addai failed to hold Manning's hand-off, led to the Bears' second touchdown. After Thomas Jones, who ran 112 yards in total, drove into Indianapolis territory, Grossman found Muhsin Muhammad with a short pass. This was to prove the high point of Grossman's night. As Bears fans had feared, and critics predicted, the inconsistent quarterback went from Good Rex, to Bad Rex, to Train Rex.
Vinatieri, with three field goals to Robbie Gould's one, and Rhodes, running 14 yards on four plays in a seven-play 58-yard touchdown drive, put the Colts 16-14 ahead at half-time and 22-17 after the third quarter. Though still in the game theoretically, Chicago were wiped out physically and mentally. In the middle quarters, the Colts had 21 minutes' possession to the Bears' eight and Manning was picking them apart. It showed. With 13 minutes remaining, Grossman tried to find Muhammad on the right but Kelvin Hayden, making the first interception of his pro career, stole the ball and ran away for a 56-yard touchdown. This was game over, a fact underlined when a Grossman pass was intercepted by the Colts' jack-in-a-box safety Bob Sanders, at 5ft 8in the shortest man on the field.
The Chicago masses, damply huddled under plastic ponchos, drifted away, back to a city experiencing a bitter chill. Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, and only the third man to win as player and coach (he was a safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII), was given an ice bath by his team. Then, in a revealing indication of the NFL hierarchy, the Vince Lombardi trophy was presented not to Dungy, nor Manning, nor any of the other 43 Colts who battled in the trenches, but to the franchise owner - the Super Bowl win is Indianapolis' first major sporting achievement since the Indiana Pacers won the then ABA in 1973. But perhaps Jim Irsay deserved it. Unlike the Glazers at Tampa, he has stuck by Dungy and overseen such a stable outfit only one assistant coach has left in five years. Dungy devoted much of his post-game comments to the subject of his religious faith, which must have been tested after his son's suicide 14 months ago.
For those of more temporal mind, Irsay's faith in Dungy, Dungy's faith in Manning, and Manning's faith in his team was more significant.