PERFECTION MAY BE ALL THAT ELUDES MANNING

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – If Peyton Manning goes down as the greatest quarterback of all time, I’d have no objections. He’s an incredible player. Incomparable statistics. Stays out of trouble. And doesn’t take himself too seriously – except when it comes to football.

I ran into him once in the off-season in California. He was shooting a commercial and dropped by a friend’s place. He wore long, loose shorts, but his thighs and legs still seemed too massive. His shoulders stretched the bounds of his T-shirt. You forget how big Manning is until you sit next to him.

Somehow, a game came up in conversation, a loss, and I made the mistake of asking, “What happened in that one?” Manning, all 6-feet-5 of him, recounted a play as if it were happening all over: the scheme, the defensive backs, the trajectory of the pass, the 2 inches that caused the misfire. He even grimaced and shook his head the way he does on the field when something blows up.

And this was the off-season.

“I had no idea I would ever get to play in the NFL,” Manning told the media a few days ago. But that is hard to believe, because he was made for this league. He has the size, the brains, the temperament and, most important, the absolute, ravenous, undying love for it. He’s into football the way teenage girls are into vampire boys.

And if he wins Super Bowl XLIV tonight, he’ll catapult high into the pantheon of his profession.

But not as high as he should have. A boneheaded move by Colts brass

Peyton Manning should be going for perfection. I’ll say it today, tomorrow and next year. Had his coach and front office not decided that they were going to shut it down in Game 15 of the regular season – pulling Manning and other starters in the third quarter of a close game – he could be looking not at doing something Bart Starr, Bob Griese, John Elway, Roger Staubach and Ben Roethlisberger have done – win two Super Bowl rings as a starting quarterback – but at something no one at his position has achieved.

Go perfect from Game 1 to Game 19.

Does anyone think the Indianapolis Colts could not have done that? Does anyone think they would have been so severely tested by a second half against the New York Jets or the final game against lousy Buffalo that they would have stumbled from exhaustion later in the playoffs?

“Every player wanted to play, every player tried to play, but that wasn’t what our front office and our coach decided,” Colts center Jeff Saturday told the media last week in a rare moment of football candidness. Saturday has snapped the ball to Manning for more than a decade. He knows there’s a football winner, there’s football history, and then there’s the quarterback who makes perfect football history.

You grab that third brass ring, you fly over everybody.

Manning won’t get the chance. Only so many Super opportunities

Don’t get me wrong. If the Colts win tonight against New Orleans, I’m sure Manning will be triumphant, soaked in champagne and smirking that goofy smile.

But historically, he’ll still be two rings behind Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, and one ring behind younger contemporary Tom Brady. And as Manning, 33, pointed out at a recent news conference, “I feel fortunate to be back. (If) every three years you go to a Super Bowl, I might run out of eligibility. So I need to try to take advantage of this one.”

Although Manning’s passing numbers are through the roof, his most impressive quality might be his iron-horse durability. In 12 seasons, he has never missed a game. He played every minute this season – even when victory was in hand – until the fateful moment his coach pulled him.

If something was to stop Manning from perfection, it should have been a lineman, a torn ligament or an interception. It shouldn’t have been his own people. Like a kid at a carnival, Manning can win a big prize with his throwing tonight, but the massive teddy bear is something he’ll have to come back for another time. It might be the only shadow on Manning’s story, but it’s there and it can’t be denied.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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