There is something about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning that just gets people worked up. His singularly impressive statistics, his enormous contract, his ubiquitous TV commercials--all add up to, well, what exactly? To fans, he's a telegenic superstar. To detractors, he's overexposed and overrated. After all, he has never won the Super Bowl. Even after his finest moment as a pro, throwing for 347 yds. in a 38-34 comeback win over the archrival New England Patriots in the game that will give Manning a chance to win the big one, the critics can't resist piling on. "Pretend he's the only reason Indy won," read a blog posting on the Sporting News website. "What a bunch of boobs. The only reason Indy won is because the defense stepped up." Another argued, "Peyton needs to win the next game, or it's a moot point."
After Dallas Cowboys malcontent Terrell Owens, no NFL player elicits as much fan emotion as Manning. Love him, hate him--either way, he's that transcendent athlete, perched in the public eye, who always gets a rise. And now he's truly in the spotlight. After nine pro seasons of compiling stunning individual stats while his teams tasted postseason failure, Manning has his shot at a title: his high-octane Colts are favored to bounce the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, which will be played Feb. 4 in Miami.
There's a lot to love about Manning, 30. The Colts are the most entertaining show in football. Manning's darts to favorite target Marvin Harrison are reminiscent of the Montana-to-Rice pairing of the San Francisco 49ers in their heyday. And just watch Manning as he approaches the line of scrimmage before each down, sizing up the defense and then calling or changing the play just before the ball is snapped. To some it seems showy and egotistical, but only a true football intellect could handle the pressure. "I've heard people say, 'Aw, that stuff he's doing, he's just talking, not doing anything,'" says NBC broadcaster and Hall of Fame coach John Madden. "Baloney."
Manning is also a polished pitchman. In his myriad commercial campaigns--Sprint, MasterCard, DirectTV, ESPN--he manages to seem both sincere and dryly funny. "Mothers out there would buy milk from him," says David Carter, executive director of the U.S.C. Sports Business Institute. "They're not going to have a negative reaction to this guy." Plus, the ads are genuinely entertaining. In a MasterCard commercial, Manning, reversing the roles of peppy fan and star athlete, shouts "You're still the man" at a waitress who has dropped dishes, and tells a clumsy moving team, "All right, guys, they're not saying boo. They're saying moo-vers." Even guys who live to crush him are impressed. "I love them," Buffalo Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes says of the ads. "In your wildest imagination, you'd never know he had the kind of personality."