INDIANAPOLIS — For the great ones, there is always a sequel.
It does not matter how many bumps are in the road, or how many detours there are to take, or how long the journey might take to complete. Somehow or the other, the great ones always find their way back. The great ones always find a way.
Peyton Manning is headed to the Super Bowl. Again.
This time, it means the final hole in his resume has been filled.
Even by Manning's standards, Sunday's performance against the Jets was a particular level of brilliance. This was highlight-reel Manning, a documentary of one man taking over a game and delivering a Super Bowl berth.
Along the way, Manning picked apart the No. 1 defense in the league, and he led his team back from an 11-point deficit, and he made a couple of unheralded receivers named Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie look like budding stars, and he left the boisterous Jets sideline silent and solemn. In all, he completed 26 of 39 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns in the Colts' 30-17 victory.
If that was not enough, Manning also managed to quiet the last of the question marks about his career.
For a long time now, everyone has agreed on Manning's greatness. The numbers are too good, and the moments are too many for anyone to dispute his impact. Still, coming into the game, there were some who raised an eyebrow at his playoff performances.
After all, Manning, 33, had been in eight other playoffs, and he had only one Super Bowl appearance to show for it. His overall playoff record was 8-8 and it included some losses when it seemed like the Colts had all the advantages. Why, the skeptics would say, Jeff Hostetler and Mark Rypien and Trent Dilfer had as many rings as Manning.
As responses go, this one was pretty good.
"He has a way of making everyone around him better," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's like a great point guard. He's going to get you the ball at the right place at the right time. He's so accurate, he creates opportunities for people. Probably the biggest thing about him is that he performs his best in the most difficult situations."
Go back to the final moments of the first half, for instance. The Jets had taken a 17-6 lead, and trouble was in the air. The Colts had struggled on offense, particularly in the red zone, and it felt as if New York was going to take over the game, the building and the town. Then Manning hit his rhythm, hitting Collie on three straight plays for 18, for 46 and for a 16-yard touchdown to cut the margin to four.
On the Colts' first possession of the second half, Manning threw on eight straight plays. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore kept sending in runs, and Manning kept changing them to passes. The drive ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Garcon, giving the Colts a lead they would not give up.
To recap: two drives, 12 passes, 137 yards and a ticket to the Super Bowl.
"Typical Peyton," Garcon said.
Think about it like this: Except for quarterback, where else did the Colts have a distinct advantage on Sunday? Defense? No. The Colts are quicker than everyone thinks, but they aren't as good as the Jets. Running game? No, the Colts ran well Sunday, but the Jets led the NFL in rushing this year. At receiver? Come on. Try putting Collie and Garcon with an average quarterback and see how many balls they catch.
For the Colts, the difference was Manning, as it always is.
If you look back on the Colts' last two disappointments in the playoffs, it's hard to pin either of them on Manning. He threw for 402 yards in that 2008 loss to San Diego. He threw for 310 in the 2009 loss to San Diego. In his last three playoff losses, Manning has had a quarterback rating in the 90s.
So why haven't the Colts fared better? Manning isn't saying. He was asked Sunday about the journey (0-2) since the Colts won the Super Bowl in February 2007.
"That's a long story, a long answer," Manning said. "We've had some disappointing losses in the playoffs after successful regular seasons. All I can say is the guys have gone back to work the following offseason to try to make our team better."
Here's a thought. Maybe it's because the Colts have never quite measured up to Manning with the rest of their team. True, Indy has had some other excellent players — Marvin Harrison, Dwight Freeney, Edgerrin James — but the defense and the running game has usually been short of greatness. It's been hard for the Colts to win unless Manning was superb. You could make an argument that the Colts have put more pressure on Manning than any playoff team since the Broncos did in the '80s with John Elway.
This time, Manning delivered. With a rookie head coach, with young receivers, against a great defense, he lifted his team and pointed them toward Miami.
This time, Manning was Super.