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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Well-armed Manning is finally strong-armed

FOXBOROUGH -- You have just witnessed the downside of being perfect.

Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning never had any intentions of goading the New England defense into a frothy, vicious lather. He never spoke ill of its abilities, providing absolutely no inflammatory headlines for the opposing locker room. In fact, Manning spoke rather eloquently on the Patriots' considerable strengths.

But his humble words were immaterial. He could not screech the brakes on a runaway train of bloated praise and ridiculous hyperbole, a cargo of irrational expectations that was hurtling headlong, in retrospect, toward a grisly wreck.

Nobody -- I repeat, nobody -- possibly could have maintained the nearly flawless streak Manning was enjoying during his surreal playoff run.

Particularly against an emotional Patriots' defense that was completely incensed by the amount of attention the Colts quarterback received in the days leading up to the AFC Championship.

"Peyton this, Peyton that," said safety Rodney Harrison, who picked off a Manning strike in the end zone on the Colts' first offensive series. "No one gave us any credit. No one gave us a chance."

"Tom Brady is the greatest winning quarterback in the league right now," growled cornerback Ty Law, who intercepted three of Manning's offerings yesterday. "What good are stats when you are sitting at home?"

Manning, who was dubbed "Mr Inhuman" for his spectacular numbers in his team's first two playoff wins over Denver and Kansas City, including a gaudy aggregate quarterback rating of 156.9 (a perfect rating is 158.3), was merely a frustrated, flummoxed, deflated mortal yesterday afternoon. The quarterback who studiously had avoided major mistakes threw four interceptions. The NFL's co-MVP who annihilated defenses with his precision passes was 23 for 47 for 237 yards. The poised, seemly unflappable field leader often appeared confused by New England's constant pressure.

The "perfect" quarterback left town a tainted 24-14 loser, even though he kept a frenzied Patriots crowd on the edge of their seats until the final seconds ticked off, based on what he might do.

Yet Mr. Inhuman also departed as a gracious, remorseful, and yes, once again, humble performer.

"I felt I did my part to get us to this point," said Manning. "But when we got here, I didn't get it done. I feel personally responsible and accountable for that."

It is never easy being an icon in the fickle world of sports. The same people who so eagerly build your reputation to absurd heights are often equally amenable to ripping you to shreds when you cannot maneuver around a field laced with razor-sharp defenders.

Manning sure picked a bad day to submit a clunker. There is no question New England's defense played a major role in disrupting his comfort zone. But Manning also made some uncharteristically bad throws based on some uncharacteristically bad decisions.

There was Law's second interception in the waning minutes of the third quarter, when Manning rushed to loft a pass above the outstretched arms of a charging Willie McGinest. The result was a ball that sailed over running back Edgerrin James's head, and landed in the grateful arms of New England's alert cornerback. Manning would also love dearly to reel back the sideline throw to Marvin Harrison in the fourth quarter that Law had pegged from 20 yards away.

Manning's not sure he will watch the film from this debacle. He also promised he would be back someday to erase the self-imposed indignities. He knows he will endure a long offseason of speculation on his "big game" capabilities. He had not won a playoff game before this year; now that he's upped the ante, he will have to answer why he hasn't made it to the Super Bowl.

"I feel pretty miserable every time I lose, regardless of the situation," Manning said. "Obviously when you're in the national spotlight it's a little more magnified. But you want to be in those situations. It's easier not to get here and sit back, watch and say, `God, how can he throw that ball in there?'

"I want to be here. I wouldn't have it any other way."

He said he's aware the same people who said nice things about him last week will not be quite so kind.

"I have a definition of myself," Manning explained. "I have things I know I can do. So many different people have definitions of you. So many people say, `He's this,' or `He's that.' I can't control those things."

The Patriots had their own ideas about controlling Manning. They wanted to slow up his receivers by jamming them. They wanted to flush Manning out of the pocket. They wanted to be seen, heard, and most of all, felt.

"You can't let Manning play pitch and catch," Harrison said. "The idea was to knock those receivers around. And, if they caught the ball, we were going to make them pay."

"We decided to get physical with these guys," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "We were able to generate pressure with our four-man front, and use the extra guy to ram the receivers.

"Then we tried to get to the spot behind the pocket where Manning likes to sit. We felt if we could penetrate there, we'd have some success. Peyton likes to sit back there. Once you see him moving around, we become like Velcro, and stick to those receivers."

The game plan included stopping the Colts on the very first drive. That strategy appeared to be in jeopardy when Manning moved his team to a first and 10 from the Patriots' 12-yard line.

"The last two games, their offense did whatever they wanted," Bruschi said. "I'm sure they thought, `We'll just knock this thing in there.' "

Instead, with the Colts looking at a third and 3 from the 5-yard line, and the Patriots scrambling on a blown coverage, Manning lost sight of Rodney Harrison in the end zone just for a moment -- until he leaped in front of a pass for Marcus Pollard.

It was a big, big play, the first of many the Patriots' defense submitted.

Asked if the Colts looked surprised when their sure-fire 7 points were suddenly kaput, Bruschi shot back, "If they were surprised by us stopping them in the red zone, then shame on them. What did they think? They were going to score every time on us? C'mon, be realistic."

Yeah, c'mon. Be realistic. Nobody's perfect -- except, maybe, that New England defense.

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

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