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Peyton Manning carries the Indianapolis Colts on his shoulders

Peyton Manning's first organized baseball team in New Orleans wasn't very good. It was tough to keep track of all the opposing runners circling the bases, so his coach would tell the team after every game it had tied.

"I'd be driving home, and he'd say, 'This coach must think we're really stupid or something because we're getting beat so bad,' " Archie Manning said. "I always thought from that day, Peyton never liked getting beat very much."

The Mannings are the first family of New Orleans. Archie was the quarterback of the hapless Saints from 1971 to 1982. His three sons grew up cheering at the Superdome.

When Hurricane Katrina struck 4½ years ago, Peyton and Eli joined a flight that transported 31,000 pounds of water, baby formula, diapers and other necessities to flooded neighborhoods.

Manning knows what a Super Bowl championship would mean to the continued revitalization of his hometown.

Who Dat talkin' 'bout beatin' dem Saints?

It's the Colts quarterback — bayou boy and native son — who will do almost anything to win tonight.

"We certainly understand that we may not be the team everybody is cheering for in this game," Manning said. "It's going to be two great teams playing against each other. I think the Super Bowl, as far as non-New Orleans Saints, non-Colts fans, somebody is going to pick a team to follow, and they probably will pick the Saints. And that's fine."

In many ways, this has been Peyton Manning's greatest season in a record-setting career.

He guided his team to the Super Bowl despite playing with a new coach, inexperienced receivers and a rushing attack that ranked at the league bottom — all while being named the NFL's most valuable player for the fourth time.

"Last year, I thought, was his best year," receivers coach Clyde Christensen said. "He didn't take one snap in training camp. I looked at him in the middle of training camp, and his knee was the size of a basketball. Then he wins the MVP. I would've said, 'That's impossible. No one can do that.'

"Then this year, he did it by being part receiver coach, part head coach, part motivator and part teacher. Each year, he has a great knack for doing what it takes."

No player is more valuable to his team than Manning.

For all 12 pro seasons, Manning has benefited from playing in the same system under offensive coordinator Tom Moore.

Everyone who has ever watched a Colts game has seen Manning frantically making hand gestures, barking out signals and directing his players like the conductor of an orchestra.

"When you're outside those numbers, there's noise out there. You can't hear him. You're trying to watch him, and he is changing the play four or five times," Christensen said. "He's giving you dummy signals. Not only do you have to process that information so fast, but right when you figure out he's giving me (one) signal, all of a sudden he gives you another that means the opposite. … Then all of sudden, he switches it back.

"In the (AFC championship) game against the Jets, he just kind of figured it out and threw 10 or 12 straight passes and moved us down the field. I remember Tom saying through the headset last week, 'Hey, you've got a bead on these guys. Just keep going. Go! Go! Go!' Which not many guys are secure enough to do."

The stories of Manning's intense preparation are legendary. He has been known to look at every play — preseason included — of an opposing defense before the Super Bowl. In January 2007, anticipating bad weather before a playoff game against the Ravens, he had the team practice with footballs soaked in water.

"Since film was available to study, I just kind of had a thirst for it. I never felt I did more than any other quarterback was doing," Manning said. "I never felt I had some secret system or anything. I just knew that is where I was going to try to gain some type of edge.

"I knew I couldn't go out there and run away from guys. I knew I couldn't throw it through them. My idea was to try and have a good sense of where they were going to be and to be real comfortable with what I was doing, where my guys were going to be."

Manning's place in NFL history remains to be seen. He is in his prime at age 33. And having never missed a game due to injury, he could play effectively for another five years or more.

Manning holds the records for consecutive seasons with more than 4,000 passing yards (six) and total seasons with 4,000 or more (10). He has the fourth-highest passer rating among active quarterbacks and ranks fifth all time.

But Super Bowl titles often define quarterbacks. Manning waited nine years for his first. Tonight's game against the Saints almost feels like a coronation for Manning.

"I certainly don't feel that way," Manning said when asked about his legacy. "Our team is excited to be here.

"We certainly want to win this game. Our experience down here three years ago was a memorable one because we were fortunate to win the game. I have the excitement that I had three years ago and just feel fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity to play."

Even if his success comes at the expense of the hometown team.

"I always thought the Saints would get to the Super Bowl one day," Archie Manning said. "In a way, I wish they weren't playing my son's team."

Peyton Manning carries the Indianapolis Colts on his shoulders 02/06/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 7, 2010 12:20pm]
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