Manning owns a 168-56 record as a starting quarterback through the last 16 years, going all the way back to his sophomore year in high school. And he's never won the Big One. Not in the NFL. Not at the University of Tennessee. Not even in high school.
Finally, Manning is in the truly Big One, the Super Bowl, driving his Indianapolis Colts with theatrics that tell their stories forever -- an 80-yard touchdown drive lasting only 1:17 to all but clinch a 38-34 win against the greatest team of this era, the New England Patriots. The drive lacked only a last-second resolution, but only because Manning made it too easy.
The meat of the drive came early, when Manning needed only 24 seconds to knock out four plays, three of them completed passes covering 69 yards, without even burning a timeout. The last 12 of those yards might be credited as a gift from the NFL's guild of referees, who called a very questionable penalty for roughing the passer against New England, enforced from the New England 23 to the 11.
And then the Colts tried to score as slowly as possible, lest New England's Tom Brady, the quarterback who surpasses Manning's individual glory with three Super Bowl wins and has twice thwarted Manning in the playoffs, should be allowed time to return the touchdown and send Manning back into exile for another spring.
The Colts sent Joseph Addai through the line three times, burning the clock down to 1:00 when the running back took it in for the winning score. The extra point by Adam Vinatieri gave the Colts a four-point lead of 38-34, meaning the Patriots for whom he hit so many clutch kicks in recent years wouldn't be able to extend the game with a field goal by the man who replaced him.
Manning took the ball with a 34-31 deficit and 2:17 left, needing only a field goal to tie the game. But a field goal would have only set the stage for Brady, and Manning wanted none of that.
The Patriots rushed Manning with all the ferocity that characterized his most recent possession, a three-and-out that forced a punt. This time, Manning felt his time and made it feel him, darting his passes, leading his offense and winning.
As Brady took the ball with 54 seconds left, the sideline camera showed Manning not wanting to look. He's seen enough porous defensive efforts from that sideline to last a career. Manning knows better than anyone that football is a team game, because he's never had the team to support his leading performances.
When Manning has won in the playoffs, the rest of his team made it work. In his six career playoff wins, Manning has thrown seven interceptions and two touchdown passes.
The defense that broke for much of the day would have to not break. The New England offense so often made victorious by its precision would have to make a mistake. The next 54 seconds would have to go Manning's way. And they did.
The Colts' Marlin Jackson intercepted Brady at the Indianapolis 35, and Manning would return to the field for one last ceremonial play out of the so-called "victory formation," which consisted of taking a snap and dropping to a knee.
Shortly after winning the AFC Championship, reporters asked Manning if he felt vindicated and he said quickly, "I don't play that card." He's right. That card plays him, which is why his victory matters.
It marks him as some kind of champion. A win in the Super Bowl Feb. 4 against the Chicago Bears would complete the picture. He'd at least be able to say he won it once.
Peyton Manning is the son of a former NFL quarterback, Archie Manning, a New Orleans icon who quarterbacked the Saints through the dreariest years of their lamented history. The Saints drafted the elder Manning out of Ole Miss in 1971, thinking a quarterback would save them.
Instead, Archie Manning ended up being what Peyton Manning would be if he played for today's Detroit Lions or the Bengals of the 1990s. The Saints went 47-114-3 during Archie's years with them, 1971-1981. Peyton Manning was born during those years and grew up in New Orleans, running a 34-5 record as the starting quarterback at Isidore Newman School during the early 1990s.
Peyton Manning went on to the University of Tennessee, winning 39 of 45 games there along with several individual awards. But he captured no more than one Southeastern Conference Championship in four years, and thus began talk that Manning couldn't win the Big One. It hurt his reputation even then. At the end of his senior season, Manning won every honor except the Heisman Trophy, for which he finished second to Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson.
The Colts knew better, taking Manning with the first selection of the 1998 draft ahead of Ryan Leaf, touted by some corners of the hype machine as Manning's superior. The Colts have never made a better call since moving to Indianapolis. Manning has started every game since.
Now it's likely we're seeing the most prolific passer of all time before our eyes. If Manning maintains his season averages, he will become the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and completions in six years and the all-time leader in touchdown passes within five.
We know the public likes Peyton Manning. We know it because companies issuing credit cards and selling consumer electronics research the marketplace so they can pick spokespersons people like.
America is pulling for Peyton Manning. So are DirecTV, Sprint, MasterCard, Reebok and Gatorade. And so is a voice inside that wants to see the best finally succeed.