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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Manning: Beating a dead horse

FOXBOROUGH -- He is Dan Marino. He is Karl Malone. He is Ted Williams.

He is the 21st century symbol of big numbers in the face of futility. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning won football's MVP award this season, broke Marino's 21-year-old record for most touchdowns in a season (49), and has thrown for more than 29,000 career yards, but all he has to show for it this morning is another playoff hangover administered by the New England Patriots' defense.

For the second season in a row, Manning and his teammates were eliminated from the postseason by a better-prepared and more physical team. This time it wasn't quite as horrific personally (he threw four interceptions in the AFC Championship game in 2004), but his performance yesterday in a humiliating 20-3 loss did nothing to dispel the theory that coach Bill Belichick has crawled inside his head and has settled in there for eternity. Manning must also brace himself for another long offseason with endless comparisons to Marino, the prolific Miami quarterback who finished his decorated career with boatload of numbers, but without the one thing he wanted most: a championship ring.

Manning is only 27. He likely will have other chances to rewrite his resume. But, as he acknowledged yesterday, he is not foolish enough to continue to bank on the future instead of the present.

"You certainly know when you have an opportunity, and you want to take advantage of it," he said. "And it's certainly disappointing when you don't.

"I've heard guys say `Next year.' Well, we don't know what will happen next week."

Maybe the Colts will be shifted to the NFC. Maybe Indianapolis actually will get a chance to host a playoff game against New England in the cozy confines of their dome. The way the Patriots dismantled the Colts' offense, it's hard to make a case that any of that would make a difference.

What transpired here yesterday was truly stunning. New England lined up against the top quarterback in the league without two of its best players in the secondary (Ty Law and Tyrone Poole) and star defensive end Richard Seymour in street clothes. The Colts lined up with a fleet of receivers (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley) that are known for their speed, their cunning, and their experience. And yet, the longest completion Manning threw all day was 18 yards.

"Our coaches came up with an unbelievable game plan," reported linebacker Mike Vrabel. "Without getting too specific, we just threw a lot of different looks at him. We showed him stuff he's never seen from us before.

"This is going to be one of those games we are all going to be very proud of. This is one where other people are going to look at the film to see how we defended them."

"I was excited with what our coaches came up with," said Willie McGinest. "We changed things up a little bit. For starters, we knew we had to stop Edgerrin [James] and the running game. If we took him out, and forced a pass-only situation, we liked our chances.

"We also went to a four-man rush and got after Peyton a little more than we have in the past. We flip-flopped our coverages. And, above all, we got physical with them."

Another "talking point" in the Patriots' defensive boardroom was the need to move Manning off his spot and force him to throw on the run. New England's defensive backs focused on jamming the Colts receivers and playing over the top of them.

The fact many prognosticators picked Indianapolis and picked Manning for an express trip to the Hall of Fame may also have come up in conversation.

"Everybody doubted us," said Jarvis Green, who filled in admirably for Seymour. "It was pretty emotional for us, what happened out there."

To a man, the Patriots made it clear it was nothing personal against Manning. They respect the Colts quarterback, much in the way Marino's opponents did not hesitate to give him his due.

But that will do little to help Manning cope with another clunker. He is a visible superstar who is developing a reputation as a guy who can't get it done when it matters.

"The only time I think about [my history] is when I walk in this [interview] room," said Manning. "It's a lot of the same song as last year. I hoped we could talk about something different, like a win.

"There's a lot of pressure. To see signs all week with my name on it, it's my name vs. the Patriots. I never play that way, or feel that way. I knew it was the Colts vs. the Patriots, but I wanted to do my job, and I didn't do it that well today."

As the Patriots move on and set their sights on another quarterback for another day, Manning's hangover will linger. His inability to win the big one will be dissected and analyzed until next season, when he submits another big pile of statistics.

"Well, being a historian, I can remember some other guys that went through this," said Colts coach Tony Dungy. "[Former 49ers quarterback] Steve Young was in our building the other day, and the same thing was said about him for a long while, and now he is going into the Hall of Fame. I can remember when [former Denver quarterback] John Elway couldn't quite win a Super Bowl and we were all hoping that he won one. Looking back on it now, he had a great career and he didn't win until way far down the road.

"The pressure will build and people will continue to talk about it, but I think Peyton will handle it."

Fran Tarkenton. Patrick Ewing. Ernie Banks.

Peyton Manning will hear all about them in the weeks ahead.

The numbers are great, but all he really wants to be is Tom Brady.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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