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CAROLINA PANTHERS: RICKY MANNING

Ricky Manning is the biggest star of the postseason for the Panthers.

The team's third defensive back until an injury forced him into the starting lineup, Manning has produced four interceptions in the playoffs, including three against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.

"Four plays changed my whole life," Manning said.

Well, sort of.

Like many first-year players, Manning has been reminded by teammates that he still has a job to do.

Like bringing Buffalo wings to the secondary Thursday, breakfast Saturday and food for the plane on road trips.

"I'm still a rookie. The guys don't let me forget that," Manning said. "I'm still a rookie."

The Panthers know they are feeding off Manning's success in the playoffs.

At 23, he is the youngest. At 5 feet 8, he is the smallest on the team. But no one has come up bigger.

In what might be considered the biggest play of the Panthers' season, against the Rams in the division playoff, Manning stole a pass from receiver Torry Holt in overtime. That set up the winning touchdown in double overtime.

Two weeks ago Manning took over the game against the Eagles. His first interception came with 52 seconds left in the first half to stop an Eagles drive. On the first drive to start the third quarter, Donovan McNabb tried to hit receiver Todd Pinkston on an inside slant on third and 6 from the Panthers 18. But Manning held his ground to make INT No. 2.

Finally, Manning caught a deflected pass intended for James Thrash, who was separated from the ball by a vicious hit from Mike Minter. McNabb finished 10-for-22 for 100 yards and a quarterback rating of 19.3.

Manning's performance is more remarkable considering he was drafted in the third round out of UCLA and didn't become a starter until the final month of the season after an injury to cornerback Terry Cousin.

"A guy like me, I like the attention," Manning said. "I strive for it, because it means you're doing something good. It sets up a lot of opportunities for me outside of football. You want to market yourself out there. I mean, it's great."

There are several reasons why there wasn't a bigger market for Manning in the NFL.

Scouts worried about his size. His background includes an off-campus incident in which he broke a knuckle punching a man who approached him after being thrown out of a restaurant. Manning settled the case out of court at a cost of $70,000.

"Ricky's a player," running back DeShaun Foster, a fellow Bruin, said. "He's not the prototype corner, but he's going to play like it. Being a rookie, people are going to attack him. He just does his job and plays well."

Fourteen defensive backs were taken in the 2003 draft ahead of Manning, who was athletic enough to play baseball in the Twins' farm system.

But Manning has always been special. As a sophomore quarterback/defensive back in Fresno, Calif., in 1997, his Edison High team was coming off consecutive one-win seasons. Behind Manning the win total went from eight to nine to 12.

He scored 105 touchdowns and added his creativity to celebrations. Wearing a Superman shirt under his jersey, Manning would raise it to reveal an S on his chest.

In the playoffs, it's as if Manning has ducked into a phone booth and emerged as a superhero again.

"Ricky is good," Minter said. "He's just a football player. That's what it's all about. It's not about stats or how fast you can run or how high you can jump, but can you play football when it's time to go?"

_ Information from the Charlotte Observer was used in this report.

Ricky Manning craves attention. "I strive for it, because it means you're doing something good."

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