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Pitch Manning

If Peyton Manning finally wins the Big One or goes down in the bitter flames of foul frustration, we're still going to see a whole lot more of him in commercials, and that's fine by me.

There's a reason why Manning is already one of the most marketed athletes on the planet: he's the rare superstar pitchman who doesn't come across as a crash-course graduate of the Old Hickory School of Thespian Technique. He actually pulls off fairly elaborate speaking and acting parts with timing and a natural, amiable flair. And he's actually funny -- a refreshing relief in an age when most athletes do little more than scowl, glower, deliver one stilted phrase, or sinply remain a prop. Granted, Manning has had clever material to work with, but so has Tom Brady, who, by comparison, seems to have all the personality of a codfish.

Every time I see Manning watching the coffee-server get blasted by steam or wearing a cheap wig and moustache, or trading shoves and kicks with brother Eli, I smile or crack up. Maybe I'm just easily amused. The odd thing is, Manning is so good that he can actually make me watch his commercials every time they come on, and vivivdly remember them, yet I totally forget what product he was selling.

Fearing the onset of early senility, I asked my teenaged son -- who also loves them -- if he could remember.

"Some credit card," he said. "I don't remember which one."

"What about the one where he wears the wig and moustache?"

"Nextel."

Actually, it's Sprint. (Heavy sigh of relief.)

That may not be what marketers want to hear, but they've got a fine actor on their hands nonetheless. Here are some of his best-known performances to date, complete with my critical appraisal.

Sprint: Disguise. Likely his best because of the extended speaking required. Charming in a goofy way.

Mastercard: Cut that meat! The proof of the man's talent is in the final bit: his fierce exhultation after receiving a handslap from his favorite accountant.

Mastercard: Sign my melon. Even better, just for the sheer silliness and Manning's Southern boy persona.

Mastercard: Steam blast The constant slapstick makes it the best of the bunch. Manning is the perfect calm witness to all the mayhem.

ESPN: With brother Eli. Peyton gets laughs with gestures, and if you have a sibling rivalry, or live with one, this is a gem.

Reebok: Manning Family: Peyton, Eli and Archie have the makings of a comedy team, although this one isn't quite a laff riot.

Gatorade: Foosball game. An animated bit that merely includes him. Watching it in retrospect, you wait for a funny line that never comes.

At this rate, ol' Peyton's going to end up with a full slate of TV and film roles one of these days, but for the time being, I expect he'll dodge, or at least redeem, the kinds of tedious, painful or undignified ads that befall so many icons. Exhibit A: the NutriSystem ad in which the "before" photo of the great Don Shula looks like he was smuggling the Goodyear blimp under his shirt. Sean Salisbury resembles a water balloon, but you gotta love John Kruk's heartfelt pitch: "My wife says I'm not as disgusting as I used to be!" Nothing like setting bar high...but Kruk gets points for delivering a laugh.

These artistic triumphs are in keeping with a grand tradition of indignities that include Mike Ditka shilling Levitra or not-so-big-stick-after-all Rafael Palmeiro pitching Viagra. Joe Namath wore panty hose for Hanes, I assume, by choice many moons ago. And it's still hard to believe that Muhammad Ali was relegated to shilling for D-Con roach spray and traps at the height of his fame because he was too "controversial" for Madison Avenue.

Manning won't suffer that fate. He'll have to get caught pulling the wings off flies to spoil his endorsement future, and even that mad act likely isn't enough these days. He and his family may very well end up overexposed, but to me -- the beleaguered viewer -- that's death by chocolate, and far preferable to being rendered numb by the standard fare.

If you view SportsCenter or ESPN2's Cold Pizza or the YES network here in New York on a daily basis, you've no doubt suffered brain damage from being subjected to these two commercial corkers countless times.

The Enzyte "natural male enhancement" opus featuring Smilin' Bob, whose frozen, pop-eyed grin makes him look like he got trapped for days in the Orgasmatron machine from Woody Allen's classic futuristic comedy Sleeper. And speaking of woody, the suggestive imagery in that ad suggests that it was produced by the marketing frim of Freud & Associates: a chart that points up at a familiar angle, long fingers pointing to oak boards, a fat guy gesticulating on a Bigger Is Better sign, Smilin' Bob's golf club. You expect a Sequoia to emerge from his trousers. And it's all accompanied by a demented whistled jingle that sounds like something aliens would use to hypnotize the Earth's population before launching their invasion. It's all mind control, I tell ya.

The other weird one that runs incessantly is for a product called Proceed that allegedly grows hair on the chromest of domes. Along with a suspicious procession of guys with full heads of thick hair, we get a poor schnook who looks like a forest fire consumed the top of his head, gazing into a mirror with disgust, and another old geezer forlornly running a brush through the few remaining cobwebs on top of his skull. Good luck, gentlemen.

I must admit those ads are compelling in a train-wreck way, but give me Peyton Manning all day every day, and that's what we'll get if his Colts beat the Bears.

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