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Panthers CB picks right time to shine

Ricky Manning Jr. stepped out of the sauna and into the locker room, pausing to flex like a bodybuilder.

His Panthers teammates stared in disbelief, then laughed.

With four postseason interceptions, the rookie cornerback has turned into a star and is loving every minute of it.

"I think Ricky wants to be a model or something," safety Deon Grant said. "He thinks he's so pretty and so special _ he thought that even before he started playing well. Now that he's playing as good as he is, he's out of control."

But that's okay with the Panthers.

Manning is learning as he goes, and Carolina might not be headed to the Super Bowl if it not for him.

After replacing an injured Terry Cousin in the starting lineup with four games left in the regular season, Manning has improved steadily. He had three interceptions in the regular season, and returned one 27 yards for a touchdown in the finale against the Giants.

His play hit another level in the postseason.

Against Dallas in the first round, he allowed only two receptions and zero touchdowns, breaking up two passes.

He saved Carolina's season the next week in St. Louis, stripping the ball from receiver Torry Holt in overtime to stop the potential game-winning drive. That interception set up the Panthers' score to send them to the NFC Championship Game.

Last weekend he intercepted three passes against the Eagles. One ended a possible scoring drive, another set up a Carolina touchdown.

There were 81 players, including 10 cornerbacks, drafted before the Panthers called the name of the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from UCLA in the third round.

"I felt like my play was better than all the corners taken before me," Manning said. "But I guess because most of them were taller, everyone thought they'd be better NFL players than me. So I set out to prove everyone wrong."

Now Manning _ at 23, he's the youngest player on the roster _ is one of the most popular Panthers.

"My phone doesn't stop ringing now, so I just keep it off," he said. "I don't know if I am a star, but that's the way everyone is making me feel. All I know is I am playing real well right now, so I think it's well deserved."

PATRIOTS: Tedy Bruschi's injured right leg is improved, but secrecy surrounded the Super Bowl status of the linebacker.

"He's feeling a lot better than he was on Monday," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "We'll just take it day to day."

All season, players have followed Belichick's policy of giving few details about injuries. The Patriots announced only that Bruschi, a defensive captain and the team's second-leading tackler, had a leg injury.

Bruschi was hurt on an incomplete pass in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game.

Bruschi wouldn't say whether he has a chance to play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 against Carolina.

He did say that having an extra week to prepare for the game should help.

COIN TOSS: Texas doesn't have a team competing in the Super Bowl, but the state will be well represented when Hall of Famers Earl Campbell, Ollie Matson, Don Maynard, Y.A. Tittle, Mike Singletary and Gene Upshaw participate in the pregame coin toss.

The six are among the 24 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who are from Texas.

Houston is hosting the Super Bowl for the second time and the first time in 30 years.

The coin will feature the Super Bowl logo on one side and the logos of the Panthers and Patriots on the other.

_ TIMES WIRES

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