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Head Games Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, shadowed by a painful history against Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots, is one victory from his first Super Bowl

The latest moment of truth has arrived for Peyton Manning.

Tonight's AFC Championship Game is the best chance ever for the Indianapolis Colts quarterback to get the playoff monkey off his back.

Fair or not, Manning's place in sports history is in the Hall of Unfulfilled Greats -- along with the likes of baseball's Alex Rodriguez and basketball's Karl Malone. He's a superstar who repeatedly has fallen short in the postseason.

He can take a big step toward changing that legacy if he can lead the Colts past their nemesis -- the New England Patriots -- and earn a trip to Super Bowl XLI.

Manning still is only 30 years old, and he has led his team to the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons. But this is only his second conference championship game, and he knows how hard it is to get this close to a title.

"Certainly, you feel the clock ticking," Manning said at a news conference Friday. "I think with free agency and with injuries, especially when you see it firsthand . . . you realize when you have an opportunity you certainly want to take advantage of it.

"The days of building or playing for next year are long over with," Manning said.

There are many dramatic story lines for the game in Indianapolis' RCA Dome. The Patriots will try to reach a fourth Super Bowl in six years. New England quarterback Tom Brady can add to his remarkable record as the winningest playoff quarterback in NFL history. He's 12-1 in the postseason. Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri will try to kick his new team over his old one.

But the biggest spotlight falls on Manning, the NFL's two-time Most Valuable Player. Manning is on pace to set every significant passing record in NFL history. He's already seventh all time in touchdown passes and 10th in completions. His regular-season record is 92-52.

In the playoffs, he's only 5-6. And in five of those six losses, his numbers have been ugly. In the AFC title game three years ago at New England, Manning threw four interceptions in a 24-14 defeat. In the AFC divisional round two years ago at New England, Manning could drive to only one field goal in a 20-3 defeat.

"Hey, I can't change what's happened in the past, and the facts are what they are," Manning said.

"I wouldn't say it didn't bother me," Manning said. "The past playoff games that we've lost versus those guys, hey, they're there. They're part of history. There's nothing we can do to change the outcome of those games."

This time, however, the Patriots are the visitors, and the Colts are 9-0 at home this season. The Patriots were 14-2 in both 2003 and 2004, and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. This time, the Pats are the No. 4 seed. They went 12-4. They have a patchwork receiving corps, and they are not as deep or as talented as they were the previous two times they eliminated the Colts.

In the Colts' 27-20 win at New England in Week Nine, Manning passed for 325 yards with two touchdowns and had a passer rating of 93.0, his best in 14 meetings against Bill Belichick's Patriots defense.

In that game, the Patriots tried to blitz Manning up the middle, a tactic that worked well for two other 3-4 defenses in 2005 -- San Diego and Pittsburgh. But Manning scrambled out of the pocket and hit big plays downfield -- a 44-yarder to Marvin Harrison and a 35-yarder to tight end Dallas Clark.

With those plays in mind, the suspicion is the Patriots will focus on coverage today, usually dropping seven men into the secondary and either playing a traditional two-deep zone or playing two safeties deep with man-to-man coverage underneath.

Manning's passing was held in check the last two weeks by the defenses of Kansas City, ranked 16th, and Baltimore, ranked first. Manning has one TD pass, five interceptions and a 58.3 passer rating the last two games.

"I think it's important that I play the quarterback position well on Sunday, and there are different ways to define that," Manning said. "Obviously, I want to make good decisions with the football. I want to protect the ball 100 percent and keep our defense out of tough situations. When the opportunity arises, try to help my team get into the end zone. We had to settle for five field goals last week, which was enough to win. But it's hard to count on that every single time."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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