PEYTON MANNING beats you with his head and Michael Vick beats you with his heart. That is the accepted shorthand in the National Football League. It is overly simplistic, more caricature than realism. It does a disservice to both players but it does not matter. The image rules above all else, and there you have it.
Close your eyes and think about Manning. What your mind's eye captures is all of the presnap histrionics for which he has become famous - not a throw, not a celebration, not a Super Bowl trophy raised high, but this incessant arm-waving and pointing and barking and rearranging that has become the American standard for the cerebral quarterback.
Now, close your eyes and think about Vick. You might picture one of those effortless, 50-yard flicks down the field, but probably not. Instead, you see him running. You see him eviscerating another defense, propelling himself into the very middle of the thing and then just ripping out its guts - refusing to slide, or to play it safe, or to do anything that suggests even a hint of settling.
There was plenty of all of that on display yesterday; Manning gesticulated and Vick steamrolled in the Eagles' 26-24 victory. But in the end, what we found out was that Manning is not so good that he can surmount a slew of injuries on his team and a foe determined to mix up its tendencies. And what we found out was that Vick's physical dynamism is now combined with both a more-complete understanding of what he is seeing on the field and a growing sense that he has found himself in the middle of some audacious possibilities.
It is all quite complicated - except for the part about the audacious possibilities. Vick told Andy Reid last week that he thought this team could make a run at the Super Bowl, and now the words have been backed up by the Eagles' most significant win of the season.
"The only person I told that to was Andy, I didn't tell anyone else," Vick said, kind of forgetting that he also told the team's website. "I talked to a couple other guys, and we all see the potential. We have a lot of rising stars, we have a lot of young guys who are very dedicated, and we have some veterans who have been around for a long time. I think that if we just put it all together we can make a run at it. And it all starts today, and we knew it was going to be a critical game for us . . . "
Reid has picked Vick to lead them, and Vick has seized the role. He has had flashier statistical games than this one, and he has been better in the red zone, but he really played winning football. On a day that they needed to keep Manning off the field, Vick and the Eagles had 18 minutes, 34 seconds in time of possession in the second half to the Colts' 11:26. And thus was a football game won - with Vick providing 74 yards of overland punctuation and refusing to slide or play it safe on his runs.
"I play this game the way I play it and I'm not going to change," Vick said, even though he kind of said last week that he would play it smarter. "I think I did a good job protecting myself at times and I think, at times, when I knew the hit was going to be as devastating, I was able to protect myself.
"I'm not going to play this game scared or hesitant or conservative," he said.
That is Vick: brave, open, unvarnished. Manning is different, even at the interview podium. He sat there yesterday and clinically tried to dissect the Colts' problems. His team is really banged up, and it showed, but Manning said, "You know, I'm not going to use that as an excuse. I think Philly has got an excellent team and I thought they really executed their defense well."
How? "I don't know - it's hard to say," Manning said. "They have good players, they have good cover guys as well - and everything was kind of contested. But we just had a hard time finding any kind of rhythm in the second half and you have to give Philadelphia a lot of credit."
Still, with 40 seconds to go, Manning had one final chance. Needing a field goal to win, he was on the Colts' 26-yard line with no timeouts remaining. To give Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri a shot at a 50-yarder into the wind, Manning would need to move the Colts about 40 yards.
Standing on the sideline, Vick knew the possibilities.
"Let me tell you something about Peyton Manning," he said. "Every time he's out on the field, you think he's going to score a touchdown. And that's just how precise he is, that's how smart he is, that the type of player that he's become and that's how hard he's worked throughout his career. You don't know what to expect so the only think I could tell myself was, 'Just try to match him, keep him off the field.' If we could do that, then we have a chance of winning - but that guy's amazing."
Manning is a scalpel while Vick is a bludgeon; again with the shorthand, again unfair to the reality. But this time, it was Manning, desperate, who threw the lollipop that Asante Samuel plucked from the sky. This time, it was Vick, exultant in the end.
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