Manning's season starts now

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

He may be the league's MVP.

Starting with that dramatic Monday night in October at Tampa and continuing through this past Sunday at Houston, he has proven he can rally a team and pull out miraculous last-minute victories.

But despite all that – not to mention the Indianapolis Colts' sterling 12-4 record – the real season begins now for Peyton Manning.

Lose on wild-card weekend to Denver and all the goodwill is gone, all the old criticism is back.

In six seasons Manning has yet to lead the Colts to a playoff victory in three attempts. Last year the Jets pounded them in the first round 41-0, prompting the Colts' idiot, if now amazingly accurate, kicker Mike Vanderjagt to question Manning's leadership ability.

Which is why on the individual level, no one has more to gain or lose in these playoffs than Manning, an unquestionably great player who still has all these questions following him around.

"Facts are facts," Manning said back in the preseason. "We haven't advanced in the playoffs. We haven't reached a Super Bowl. The individual success isn't important. It's what the team does."

So Manning knows he needs a postseason victory. He understands his career won't be complete until he clears the next hurdle.

The four-time Pro Bowler realizes January is when legends are made in the NFL.

Statistically only Dan Marino ever had a better six-year stretch than Manning. And they still criticize Marino for not winning a Super Bowl. But at least he got to one.

Manning was dreadful last year in New York. Add that performance to past failures dating back to three collegiate losses to archrival Florida as well as Manning's tendency to audible non-stop and freeze under the most intense heat, and it wasn't just Vanderjagt who was calling him out.

Vanderjagt said he wasn't sure Manning had the fire and leadership ability to get the Colts to the next level. Manning shot back that Vanderjagt was an "idiot" who got "liquored up" before running his mouth.

Apparently everything got patched up. The Colts are a better and more focused team this year than last, when they slunk into the playoffs at 10-6.

They will play at home this year, not in the cold Meadowlands. They'll do it with a healthy Edgerrin James, who was hobbled by injury last season but just hung 171 yards on Houston.

And, maybe most importantly, they will do it with some swagger, especially after rallying in the final minutes to beat the Texans thanks to a great drive by Manning and kick by Vanderjagt.

"This was a good win, a tough win," Manning said Sunday after leading two late scoring drives to pull out the 20-17 victory. "Last year, we didn't have a lot of momentum or confidence heading into the playoffs. Hopefully, we can use this to springboard into next week."

The downside is the opponent. Forget the Broncos' phone-it-in finale in Green Bay. The week before, Denver walked into Indy and dominated, 31-17.

So the Broncos are going to going to be confident, too.

"A lot of people will probably say, 'Gee, I guess they don't want to play Denver again,' " said Manning, who completed just 12 passes for 146 yards and no touchdowns against the Broncos. "Denver pretty much handed it to us the first time. We've got to play better. We've got to change some things, correct some things and just play better."

Perhaps it will be that simple. Perhaps not.

Indianapolis won't win or lose Sunday just because of Manning. It's a team game, and unless someone can stop the Denver running attack, Manning may not matter.

That won't dim the spotlight on him this week. Too many yards passing, too many TV commercials and too few postseason victories will do that.

It may be a team game, but in Indianapolis one individual needs one victory more than anyone in football.

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