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The instant the playoff game ended a mob of photographers, adorned in special orange vests, circled in a posse around Peyton Manning. The cameras snapped and whirred, capturing for posterity expressions photographed so frequently before.

Peyton was in deep scowl.

He had lost. Again. In a vital game.

Within 24 hours, John Fox, his coach, had been dumped. Manning's team offered the alibi that he had played with a torn quad muscle in his right leg.

And his future was in doubt because he is nearly 39 years old and has been decrepit for several years.

But Peyton Manning remains the foremost celebrity athlete in celebrity-enraptured America. He has been voted to five NFL most valuable player awards, more than any NFL athlete before him. He has thrown more touchdown passes than any pro quarterback before him.

And in my judgment he has been the losing quarterback in more vital games than any pro quarterback before him. More than Sid Luckman, Sammy Baugh, John Unitas, Bobby Layne, Otto Graham, Bart Starr, Norm Van Brocklin, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, John Elway, Dan Marino — all quarterbacks through the ages with whom he has been compared. And regarded by too many of my contemporaries as being superior to all.

All pro quarterbacks who have been glorified by selection, deservedly, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Peyton will have his place

Peyton — and he, too, deservedly, will be enshrined in Canton someday — finished off this current season 11-13 lifetime in postseason competition after last Sunday's Denver debacle. This time conquered, outplayed by Andrew Luck, his successor with the Indianapolis Colts.

There were all those touchdown passes in regular-season games, 530. And there was the hullabaloo the October Sunday when he set the record. The cameras whirred and snapped then, too. The NFL record for touchdown passes became Peyton's. A record, perhaps to last forever.

And below .500 in postseason football, where the greatest of the quarterbacks have excelled. Montana. Bradshaw. Starr.

Tch, tch, 1-2 in Super Bowls.

Peyton's kid brother, Eli, has doubled him up as a Super Bowl winner. His foremost rival, Tom Brady, has tripled Peyton up in Super Bowl victories. Such immortal quarterbacks as Jeff Hostetler, Doug Williams and Trent Dilfer have matched Peyton with single Super Bowl victories.

It all works into a favorite topic — The Pro Quarterback Mystique!

Again.

And again in two weeks — as soon as Super Bowl XLIX ends with another quarterback in a glorious confetti shower — the draft will become the NFL's foremost topic. The wondrous draft, where The Mystique starts. The draft that will be promoted until doomsday by ESPN.

The draft that produced Peyton Manning as No. 1 off the board in 1998 — and introduced him to the great unwashed as the face of the NFL. The league's symbol. The figure who tries to sell us pizza pies and insurance policies plus other endorsed products.

Funny — two years later the draft produced Tom Brady, out of Michigan, in the dregs of the sixth round, the 199th player off the board. A pin-the-tail-on-the donkey, grab-bag pick by the Patriots.

Even the calculating, brooding, hooded, brilliant Bill Belichick isn't that much of a genius.

Brady's boffo

Funny — Tom Brady, really an undesirable on that draft day 15 years ago, has dominated Peyton Manning in their mano-a-mano rivalry. Brady, with the Patriots, is 11-5 vs. Manning, with the Colts and the Broncos.

Funny, Brady's record in playoff games plus Super Bowls was 18-8 headed into this weekend's AFC Championship Game. Brady vs. Luck.

But what is really funny how the shiny, glossy NFL has become America's most popular, most publicized — and most pompous — sport falls into deep imperfection in the simple matter of drafting quarterbacks. Well, absolutely, not so simple.

Brady is just the best available example of this theory of mine within The Pro Quarterback Mystique.

Right after Peyton was drafted first off the board in 1998, the Chargers drafted Ryan Leaf No. 2. Leaf was a resounding flop in the pros. Leaf was out of the NFL five seasons later after chances to prove himself with four clubs. His departure from football was followed by time in prison.

A year after the Colts drafted Manning, the new Cleveland Browns drafted Tim Couch first off the board. Five years later, Couch was booed out of Cleveland. Soon he would be booed out of Green Bay. In all, after Cleveland, Couch drifted to tryouts with eight other NFL clubs, according to his Wikipedia biography.

None of this is unusual. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are two examples of celebrity quarterbacks from opposite ends of the draft — when the supposed expertise of all the general managers and all the coaches and all the scouts is designed to shine.

Joe Montana was drafted in the third round in 1979 — 82nd off the board — by the 49ers. Terry Bradshaw was drafted first off the board in 1970 by the Steelers.

Each won four Super Bowls.

Bart Starr emerged out of Alabama in 1956. That year, when the NFL drafted into eternity, it seemed, Starr was selected in the 17th round. He was No. 200 off the board way back 59 years ago.

Starr would win the first two Super Bowls for Vince Lombardi's Packers and a total of five NFL championships.

There are many, many more to think about this championship weekend.

Aaron Rodgers, first round, a surprising low 24th off the board in 2005 vs. Russell Wilson, third round, 75th off the board in 2012.

Luck, first off the board in 2012 vs. Brady, undesirable Wolverine in 2000 turned Super Bowl winner by 2002.

Funny — the draft produces first-round quarterbacks Peyton Manning and kid brother Eli, Terry Bradshaw; Joe Namath; and others such as Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel. And lower rounds generate back benchers such as Montana, Starr and Brady.

And this year, the media posse at Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona will miss out on its chance to surround Peyton Manning. By my gauge, Peyton Manning is an amazing quarterback, excellent and perhaps even great — and the most overrated athlete ever.

But at least, he was never booed out of Cleveland.

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