INDIANAPOLIS – Tom Brady took the podium casually. His collar was open. He joked with reporters. While answering a question, he stopped in mid-sentence and laughed.

“I just found a few bucks in my pocket,” Brady said, smiling. “Man, that’s a good feeling, isn’t it? Hey, about 40 bucks! … It’s my lucky day.”

A few minutes later at a downtown Indianapolis hotel, it was Peyton Manning’s turn to talk in a news conference. He didn’t seem as comfortable or as lucky. He wore a knotted tie. Although he cracked a couple of jokes, too, there wasn’t much laughter as he discussed past playoffs and another game against New England.

“No matter what happens from here on out in the future,” Manning said, “we’re still going to be disappointed about those games we’ve lost in the playoffs.”

The quarterbacks enter Sunday’s AFC championship game linked but far apart, and the main story line will be whether Brady widens the gulf between them or Manning starts to close it.

Brady’s NFL career has been like found money. He fought with Drew Henson for the starting job at Michigan. He wasn’t drafted until the sixth round. He got a shot to start only after Drew Bledsoe got hurt.

And yet he has become the NFL’s best money quarterback since his childhood idol, Joe Montana. He is 12-1 in the playoffs. He has won three Super Bowls. He has been the Super Bowl MVP twice.

He has had a book written about him. He just broke up with actress Bridget Moynahan, only to apparently pick up model Gisele Bundchen.

It’s good to be Tom Brady.

Manning is rich and popular, too. He might be the only NFL player Madison Avenue likes more than Brady.

And yet for all his regular-season success – the victories, the statistics, the two MVPs -many define him by his playoff failures, and Brady’s success puts them in sharp relief. Manning has never made the Super Bowl. Twice, he has fallen short because of a loss to Brady’s Patriots.

That’s tough to swallow for a guy with Manning’s pedigree. He was a No. 1 pick out of Tennessee. His father, Archie, and brother Eli were No. 2 and No. 1 picks out of Mississippi.

“I wouldn’t say it doesn’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.”

The Colts can win this one, though.

Asked how he judged his playoff record, when so many judge quarterbacks by whether they win the Super Bowl, Manning said, “People talk about your legacy and whatnot. That’s kind of a deep word for me.”

But asked about the window of opportunity in Indy, Manning said, “Certainly you feel the clock ticking.”

Manning talked about how running back Edgerrin James had gotten hurt and how he later left for Arizona. He talked about other teammates who moved on in free agency, such as tight end Marcus Pollard, who signed with the Lions two years ago.

“The more you play, the longer you play, going into your ninth year, you realize you probably won’t get as many opportunities,” Manning said. “When you have one, you want to be able to take advantage of it.”

Asked if any part of him wished he weren’t playing the Patriots – or if he appreciated he was playing the Patriots because beating them would be poetic justice – Manning hesitated at first. He sounded as if he were going to brush off the question by saying that was too deep for him again.

“I guess that makes for a good story, all the past history and all the side stories,” Manning said. “But, hey, you don’t have a choice who you’re going to play.”

Manning said he expected the Patriots to be here, then tried to use a little humor.

“I’m sure,” Manning said, “it wouldn’t totally have bothered me if we would have been playing Oakland in this game.”

If only it were that easy.

(c) 2007, Detroit Free Press.

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AP-NY-01-19-07 2111EST