- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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• New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
The minute he stepped on the field, everyone felt he was destined to take the Colts to the Super Bowl. His presence was no different from when John Elway bolted Baltimore and went to Denver. As quarterbacks, Manning and Elway were simply better than their peers.
Manning never missed a play. He executed his offense with remarkable efficiency. He completed passes to Marvin Harrison that had no margin of error. Before long, the Colts were playoff contenders awaiting their Super Bowl destiny. But like the Knicks who tried to win during the Bulls' reign or Oakland and Houston trying to be satisfied when the Steelers were winning championships, the Colts had to keep waiting and waiting and waiting.
So it's only fitting that the Patriots are standing in the way of the Colts for the Super Bowl. History is on the line Sunday when the two teams meet. The sentimentalists in sports would appreciate the feel-good story of Manning's finally getting his chance to go to the Super Bowl. Seeing Tony Dungy, who had a Super Bowl opportunity taken away from him in Tampa Bay, go to the Super Bowl also might bring a tear to the eye.
This is clearly Manning's best chance and, like so many great chances, it comes at the most unlikely time.
Few gave the Colts a chance when the playoffs began. They were giving up 173 rushing yards a game. Tackling was bad. Techniques were messed up. Confidence was low, and the number of injuries was high.
The Colts opened the playoffs against Larry Johnson and Kansas City. Some thought Johnson might roll off 200 yards against the Colts, forgetting that the Chiefs were a struggling road team and that the return of Indy safety Bob Sanders might make an impact. This past weekend, many didn't give the Colts a chance against the Ravens. They figured Jamal Lewis would run over Indy's undersized defense. He didn't, and the Colts won.
Now, the Colts face their nemesis, the Patriots. The fear in Indianapolis is that Manning might not play well and might once again miss his chance to go to the Super Bowl. For two seasons, the Colts flirted with unbeaten seasons and dealt with missed opportunities despite having home-field advantage.
The 2006 season was more of a challenge. The schedule was tougher than expected. After a 9-0 start, the Colts struggled down the stretch and finished 12-4 with the No. 3 seed. They had to do everything the hard way in a postseason full of games that are among the most competitive in playoffs history.
Whether officials are allowing secondaries to play more aggressively or this postseason simply is loaded with great defenses, quarterbacks are having their toughest postseason. Completion percentages have dropped from 64 percent in 2004 to 57.1 this year. Each pass is contested. Manning is completing 66 percent of his passes, but he has thrown five interceptions in two games and is getting only 6.4 yards per attempt.
Brady is having an equally tough time. His completion percentage is 57.6, and his quarterback rating in these playoffs is 75.2. The competition committee helped the quarterbacks by letting them work up the football, but if defensive backs are allowed to be overly aggressive with their receivers, it makes the quarterback's job that much tougher.
Sunday night's game will be great theater and could be one for the history books. The Patriots could go to their fourth Super Bowl and become a dynasty the likes of the Steelers and the Packers. Manning could get to his first Super Bowl and fulfill his supposed destiny.
It's the classic championship game.
• New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, Fox)
Cinderella meets the Monsters of the Midway.
Were this on a neutral field or in the Super Bowl, the Saints actually might be favored even though the Bears won three more games. Drew Brees is the darling of the playoffs. He finished second to LaDainian Tomlinson for MVP, and he made a miraculous comeback from a complete tear of the labrum muscle in his right shoulder.
In a postseason that has been tough on quarterbacks, Brees is the best so far. He went 20-of-32 for 243 yards and had a 96.2 quarterback rating against the Eagles on Saturday. Can the story continue?
Home-field advantage for the Bears can't be underrated. They were the NFC's best home team with a 6-2 record. They have the advantage of an open-air stadium in a cold-weather environment. The Saints play their home games in a dome, and questions remain about how the weather will affect their explosive passing attack and high-scoring offense.
The pressure is clearly on the Bears in this game. As a top seed, being a runner-up won't be accepted. It's a defining game for coach Lovie Smith and Rex Grossman, the playoff quarterback under the most pressure.
Grossman wasn't great last week against the Seahawks, but he did enough to win the game. That's all that is being asked of quarterbacks this postseason. He completed 21 of 38 passes for 282 yards. His willingness to go downfield creates excitement or panic every time he throws.
It's said championships are won on defense, and Chicago has the clear advantage there. Or does it? The Bears finished the regular season fifth in defense with 294.1 yards allowed and were third in points allowed at 15.9 points a game.
But since defensive tackle Tommie Harris went down with a knee injury, opponents haven't had much trouble putting 20 points on Chicago. With the shaky nature of Grossman and the chance he could be forced into turnovers, the Bears can't afford to get into a high-scoring game with Brees and the Saints.
They also can't afford to let New Orleans jump out to a substantial lead. The Chicago defense is undersized. With the lead, the Saints could wear down the Bears' defense with running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, allowing Brees to set up some play-action passes.
Bears fans aren't thinking about the negatives, though. They finally got over the hump by beating the Seahawks in overtime Sunday. They've tasted victory, but they want at least one more.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
4dEric D. Williams
4dEric D. Williams
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