INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS -- If you listened carefully at the RCA Dome last Saturday, a distinct sound of discord could be heard after Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw the last of his three interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs.
To paraphrase one of Manning's many televisions commercials, they weren't saying, "Moooooooooovers."
Manning, who in recent years has become the face of the NFL as much for his self-deprecating pitchman persona as for his regular-season dominance, would have been vilified had the Colts lost to the Chiefs in their AFC wild-card playoff game.
Even though he completed 30 of the 38 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown in a 23-8 victory, Manning knows he will have to minimize his mistakes to beat the Ravens in Baltimore this week. For Manning and the Colts, it will be their latest opportunity to chase away the demons of past playoff disappointments.
Asked yesterday about the criticism he has received for his team's lack of postseason success, Manning said: "I've always looked at it like, when we've won a game, the Colts won, and when we lose, the Colts lose. Usually the times we've lost in the playoffs, the cut and dry of it is, I don't think our team was good enough."
Said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who has his own critics despite twice taking teams to a conference championship game: "I think we're all in the same boat that every year is different and every year you have an opportunity to succeed. We've got a game against the Ravens that's a huge game, and I think that's what he's zeroed in on."
Now in his ninth season, Manning is at the stage of his career where he needs to at least reach the Super Bowl, if not lead his team to victory, to silence those who have questioned his ability to win championships dating back to his years at the University of Tennessee.
Is Manning simply the Dan Marino of his generation, destined to break as many hearts as he does records?
Marino, the NFL's all-time passing leader in nearly two dozen categories, reached pro football's biggest game in his second season with the Miami Dolphins, and lost, and reached only one more AFC championship game in his 17-year career. His 8-10 playoff record is similar to Manning, who is 4-6.
Any professional football player ought to play with a sense of urgency," said Manning, who has led the Colts to the AFC championship game once, losing to the New England Patriots in January 2004. "I've always kind of played for the moment. You have an opportunity in front of you, you want to take advantage of it."
Playing against the league's best overall defense might be viewed more as an obstacle than opportunity, but Manning has played well in his three previous games against the Ravens. The most recent came in the opener last season at M&T; Bank Stadium, when these Colts won for the first time in their ancestral home and Manning threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns while not being sacked.
In Baltimore, the Ravens aren't thinking about the problems Kansas City cornerback Ty Law gave Manning last week, when Law had two of the team's three interceptions. Ravens coach Brian Billick sees a quarterback who led the NFL in touchdowns passes (31 to only nine interceptions) and passer rating (101.0) while finishing second to New Orleans' Drew Brees in yardage (4,397).
"A Peyton Manning-quarterbacked offense, it's going to challenge you, and our guys have a lot of confidence and a lot of pride, but they know how difficult it's going to be," Billick said on a conference call yesterday.
Asked if it might be different facing Manning after a three-interception game, Billick said: "I have no idea. I've never faced him after a three-interception game. He's a good quarterback and anybody who would take a tough outing on one week as an indication that he might struggle the next week would be ill-advised to do so."
Last week marked the 12th time in Manning's career that he threw three or more interceptions in a game, and the first time he has won. One thing Manning has done often during the regular season but has still yet to do in the playoffs is win a game after his team fell behind.
"You play against good teams, it's tough to fall behind against good teams," said Manning.
His teammates don't think Manning should take all the heat for the team's postseason flops, which included losing in the divisional round last year against the subsequent Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's totally unfair," tight end Dallas Clark said last week. "There's 11 guys on the field at any one time and 10 other guys have responsibilities, too. That's just the way it is, unfortunately. It's too bad for him, and I feel bad for a guy who's under that kind of microscope."
Saturday's game in Baltimore holds special meaning to Manning, more than any other player, because of the history of the two franchises and the quarterbacks with whom they're most associated. As a child growing up in New Orleans, Manning heard his father Archie asked about his favorite athletes.
"He always said Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas," the younger Manning recalled.
Manning wanted to honor Unitas after the former Baltimore Colts legend died in 2002 by wearing black high-top cleats, Unitas' trademark, but the NFL threatened to fine him for violating the league's uniform dress code. Manning passed Unitas' team record for career completions this season, but is still uncomfortable with any comparisons.
"I realize we played in different cities, but I am proud to wear the same uniform he wore," said Manning. "Anytime you get into some of these records that he had, I still look at it like he's way, way up. My dad said that Johnny Unitas was the best to ever play, so that's what I go with as well."
Manning said he got to meet Unitas on a few occasions, usually at banquets such as the one in Louisville when Manning was still at Tennessee and won the award named in honor of No. 19.
"He was always very nice to me, and I always appreciated that," recalled Manning. "I don't think he was necessarily pulling for my team to win, but he said he kind of enjoyed watching me play. That was a real compliment coming from someone like him."
When Manning is introduced on Saturday in Baltimore, fans of the old Colts are unlikely to give him a warm reception.
It'll sound something like "Moooooooooovers."