By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - After another MVP season, an All-Pro honor and a bravura performance to lift the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning is still climbing up the list of great NFL quarterbacks.
A win in Sunday's championship clash against the New Orleans Saints would add a second Super Bowl ring to the considerable resume of a cerebral quarterback who once labored under criticisms that he came up short in the biggest games.
Titles are all that stand between the Colts' member of the First Family of quarterbacks and the NFL's most revered QBs, including Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and John Elway.
He dissected the top-ranked defense for 24 unanswered points in a come-from-behind win, earning extra credit for having studied a four-year-old game film to prepare for Jets' coach Rex Ryan's thinking and negate blitzes and carve up coverages.
"He's just a mastermind at what he does," Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis told reporters at last week's Pro Bowl in Miami.
A virtual coach on the field, Manning operates a no-huddle attack. The 6-foot-5 signal caller sizes up defenses at the line of scrimmage, changes plays before the snap and delivers crisp passes that this year produced his NFL record 10th 4,000-yard passing season.
Manning was born and raised in New Orleans and a top-rated high school player before going to the University of Tennessee.
There he led the Volunteers to three Bowl wins and a 39-6 record as a starter, but lost to powerhouse Florida in three huge showdowns.
Manning completed his degree requirements in three years but instead of entering the 1997 NFL Draft decided to return to Tennessee and enjoy another year at college.
Taken by Indianapolis as first pick in 1998, he struggled through the growing pains of a rookie season that produced a 3-13 record.
The next season he led Indy to a 13-3 mark and a trip to the playoffs. Manning and the Colts are on a streak of eight successive seasons into the playoffs with 10 or more wins.
However, memories are short among those ready to anoint Manning the best of the new century of NFL quarterbacks.
Just two years ago, the clearcut leader for that distinction would have been New England Patriot Tom Brady.
Brady steered the Patriots to three Super Bowl crowns in four years from 2001 to 2004, narrowly missing a fourth when Eli Manning and the Giants overcame them with a last-minute drive to ruin their bid for a perfect 2007 season.
Seven successive losses to the Patriots in Foxborough dogged Manning before he broke through, and now the 33-year-old Colt quarterback appears poised to narrow the Super Bowl gap.
With Manning going stronger than ever, Brady has had setbacks. The sixth-round pick of the 2000 draft missed the 2008 season after knee surgery and was up and down this season as the Pats (10-7) lost in the opening round of the playoffs.
Five-times All-Pro selection Manning has proven to be a master showman off the field as well with a slew of sponsorship deals playing off his deadpan sense of humor. He has even taken a turn at hosting the Saturday Night Live comedy show on TV.
On the field, he is deadly serious and determined to make Sunday's Super Bowl in Miami another Colts success story.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)