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ON FOOTBALL

Manning rematch is best-case scenario

He doesn't need a ring on his finger to prove that he's the best quarterback in football. He might even be the best ever, with or without one.

His 121.4 season rating, his record 49 touchdown passes, his outstanding fourth-quarter comeback against the Chargers in a 34-31 win last Sunday, his 4,000-yard passing performances in each of the last six seasons are convincing enough.

Which is why the Patriots should want to face Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. Beating Manning always means a lot, just as it did last season when the Patriots frustrated him in a 24-14 victory for the AFC championship.

It's a more rewarding ride to the Super Bowl because it means you've played an incredible defensive football game against Manning's equally incredible skills as a quarterback.

So please, Colts, no fluke losses to the Jets or Bills or Broncos or whomever you face in the divisional round of the playoffs. Just win, come to Gillette Stadium, and either meet your match again or extend the most historic season ever by a quarterback.

Do battle with Tom Brady, the guy who's outplayed you head-to-head, the two-time Super Bowl MVP against the guy who was last year's co-MVP (with Steve McNair) and who will be the league's MVP, hands down, this year. It's the last challenge for Manning, isn't it?

But win or lose, Manning, who has thrown four or more touchdown passes in a game six times this season (a total of 29 in those six games, which is three more than Brady has thrown all season), will remain the most exciting player in football.

If it's entertainment you want -- and why else would you sit in front of your TV on Sunday? -- Manning provides it, with some of the most beautifully thrown passes and big plays you'll ever see, not to mention volume (216 TD passes in 111 career games).

He's a quarterback who goes beyond "managing the game," the buzz phrase for successful quarterbacks these days.

The Colts' defense has allowed nearly 23 points a game the last four years (in comparison, the Patriots have allowed 17.6), so Manning's job isn't "managing" but carrying the team.

It's scary to think what Manning would do on a team with a Patriots-like defense, if he didn't have the pressure to carry the team on his back -- the type of pressure neither Brady nor Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger has. Because of the Colts' defensive deficiencies, Manning basically has to lead his offense to more than three scores every game to win.

But Manning has faced the challenge head-on, often matter-of-factly. While he has great weapons in Marvin Harrison, Brandon Stokley, Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James, he's the trigger man.

There is no doubt whose team this is. When you have the power to wave off the punt team -- as Manning did against the Chargers -- that becomes very clear. Until the Colts provide Manning with defensive support, he'll have that power.

Looking back to Game 1 of the season, the Colts probably should have beaten the Patriots, but turnovers -- including a Manning interception -- led to a 27-24 New England victory. If that game did anything, it reinforced to the Colts that they can beat the Patriots if they don't do dumb things.

Manning's contribution to the loss was throwing an interception near the goal line late in the first quarter to Tedy Bruschi, and he's kicked himself for it ever since.

After breaking Dan Marino's touchdown record last Sunday, Manning recalled that loss and said, "When you remember the game in New England, you'd never think this was possible."

But it was.

Still, Manning hasn't conquered all. Last year's playoff loss to the Patriots and Game 1 this season are reminders of that.

The Patriots have done a remarkable job playing with a makeshift secondary for much of the season, but they haven't faced anyone in Manning's league with it. If Manning gets favorable matchups with receivers, could the Patriots stop him this time?

History says the Patriots will find a way. But while Manning is 1-5 (including the playoff loss) vs. New England in the Bill Belichick era, the law of averages is in his favor.

Manning would need help from his defense, which would have to create turnovers and keep Brady out of his rhythm. Brady is bound to get more help from his defense than Manning does from his, but therein lies Manning's great ability to overcome his team's shortcomings.

A Colts player said yesterday, "Not being able to beat the Patriots is definitely something he thinks about and he wants to change. He can beat anybody, anytime. Well, except for one team. Honestly, if that's who we play, Peyton won't consider his season a success unless he beats them. I think we all see them as the best team. They're the team we need to get by to get where we want to go."

As superb a season as he had last season, this one has blown that one off the charts.

He is the best quarterback. The Patriots are the best team.

It's the matchup we want. For entertainment purposes, of course.

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