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This one counts more than all his numbers

INDIANAPOLIS -- The lasting image Patriots fans have of Peyton Manning in the playoffs is his arms spread wide, his palms turned upward, and his shoulders shrugged after the Indianapolis Colts turned the ball over on downs late in their 24-14 loss to the Patriots in the 2003 AFC Championship game. Manning's body language at that moment defines his playoff career -- a search for answers.

For all of Manning's regular-season greatness -- he holds the record for touchdown passes in a season (49 in 2004), is the only player in league history to pass for at least 3,000 yards in each of his first nine seasons, and is the only quarterback with 25 or more touchdown passes in nine consecutive seasons -- the playoffs have been his Kryptonite.

Forty games over .500 for his career in the regular season (92-52), Manning has a 5-6 mark in the playoffs.

No player who takes the field tomorrow for the AFC Championship game at the RCA Dome has more on the line than Manning, whose reputation as a playoff underperformer is largely rooted in his two prior postseason defeats at the hands of New England -- a four-interception performance in the 2003 AFC Championship game and a 20-3 divisional-round loss the following season. Another loss to the Patriots would reinforce the notion that he's football's answer to Alex Rodriguez, a victory would provide redemption and force a reexamination of his place in the pantheon of NFL greats.

"I can't change what's happened in the past and the facts are what they are," said Manning. "Obviously, we have a tremendous opportunity this year in this playoff run and it's one we'd like to keep going and continue. People talk about your legacy. That's kind of a deep word for me as a quarterback getting ready to play in a playoff game. I haven't really taken much time or hardly any time to analyze that. I'm really just focused on the game."

The Colts have tried to insulate their franchise quarterback from his past failures this week. Manning did not speak to reporters until yesterday. While the Colts cited the NFL's request that the remaining playoff quarterbacks be made available for the NFL Network, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in addition held his regular Wednesday press conference. And one by one this week, Colts coach Tony Dungy and assorted players deflected pressure from Manning.

"I think the same thing is at stake for him as there is for all of us," said Dungy. "We've got a group here that hasn't been to the Super Bowl. We'd like to get there and we're one step away. Everybody in our locker room wants to do that and Peyton is no different. I don't think it's a make or break game for any one person. I don't think it's a make or break game for him."

They also shot down the notion that Manning is not at his best in big games.

"I've played in a lot of games that I felt were big games and he's come through," said Colts receiver Reggie Wayne. "Who decides what's the big game?"

But the statistics don't lie. Manning has 28 career fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his nine-year career, but not one in the playoffs. His playoff passer rating is 10.5 points below his regular-season mark of 94.4. Manning has done little to bolster that perception this postseason, despite leading the Colts to the brink of the Super Bowl. In Indianapolis's two wins, Manning, who led the league with 31 TD passes, has thrown one touchdown pass and five interceptions.

"He has a lot of responsibilities in our offense that are above and beyond just throwing the ball," said center Jeff Saturday. "I've heard people criticize what he's done these last two weeks, but he has done a great job of managing the games, changing up tempos, and doing a lot of things to keep defenses off balance. The reality is that he has helped us win both of those games."

All the responsibility Manning has for running the Colts' offense -- he is equal parts quarterback and play-caller -- may be one reason he hasn't succeeded in the playoffs.

"We take his greatness for granted. He's the only quarterback in football, including Tom Brady, that does it all at the line of scrimmage," said former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and current CBS analyst Boomer Esiason.

In the postseason, Manning's greatest strength -- his cerebral approach to the game -- may be his greatest weakness, like a computer asked to perform too many functions at once.

Dungy dismissed the notion, saying he doesn't worry about Manning being overloaded.

"No, I don't, because that's our system," said Dungy. "That's how we've played for eight years and that's how every game is for him. He has to put us in the right plays for us to really function well, and he generally does. That's probably the least of my worries."

Still, Manning sounded almost chary when talking about tomorrow's game, saying he had to make good decisions, protect the ball, keep his defense out of tough situations, and "help our team get into the end zone." Those are not the words you would expect from one of the NFL's most prolific passers and the leader of the league's No. 2 scoring offense.

Manning may have been trying to parrot Brady's blueprint for playoff success. Manning's greatest misfortune is that he has served as the foil for Brady and his three Super Bowl rings -- the A-Rod to Brady's Derek Jeter. This time of year one stat -- wins -- overshadows any other produced by a quarterback, and Brady's 12-1 playoff mark only further highlights Manning's troubles.

Is it fair that Manning is measured against Brady and his baubles?

"I think so," said Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark. "That's just the way this league is. You're always compared to the best. Brady has had a great run in his career and has gotten the chance to go to the Super Bowl a few times. I think in that essence, unfortunately, he can be compared to that, but they're both great in their separate work realms."

Clark cited Dan Marino as a player that had to endure what Manning is going through, but he said that the Colts' quarterback is young enough that hopefully he won't have to live with the bitter taste of never making it to or winning a Super Bowl.

However, the 30-year-old Manning acknowledged he feels the clock ticking, pointing to the fact that only 18 players remain from the Colts team that played the Patriots in the teams' previous AFC title tilt. "The more you play, the longer you play, you realize you probably won't get as many opportunities," said Manning. "When you have one you want to be able to take advantage of it."

Whether Manning finds a solution to his playoff problem against the Patriots, Dungy said tomorrow isn't judgment day for Manning.

"I don't think you judge him until his career is over," said Dungy. "I can remember walking through the stands in Green Bay when I was the defensive coordinator in Minnesota and people complaining after the games, 'We'll never win with this guy. He's too spacey. We have to get rid of Brett [Favre].' I can remember people talking about John Elway for years and years how he wasn't able to win the big one. After they win one . . . we canonize them. Peyton is probably halfway through his career, so we'll see. You've got to wait until it's over."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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