CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ricky Manning Jr. stepped out of the sauna and into the locker room, pausing to flex like a bodybuilder. His Panthers teammates stared at the cornerback in disbelief, then burst into laughter.
With four postseason interceptions, the rookie has turned into a star and is loving every minute of it.
"I think Ricky wants to be a model or something," safety Deon Grant said. "He thinks he's so pretty and so special - he thought that even before he started playing well. Now that he's playing as good as he is, he's out of control."
But that's OK with the Panthers. If not for Manning, the Panthers might not be headed to the Super Bowl to play the New England Patriots on Feb. 1.
Since stepping into the starting lineup as an injury replacement for cornerback Terry Cousin with four games left in the regular season, Manning has improved steadily. He had three interceptions in the regular season, and returned one 27 yards for a touchdown in the finale against the New York Giants.
His play hit another level in the postseason.
Against Dallas in the first round, he allowed only two receptions and no touchdowns while breaking up two passes.
He saved Carolina's season the next week in St. Louis, stripping the ball away from receiver Torry Holt in overtime to stop the potential game-winning drive. That set up a Panthers drive to a field goal that put them in the NFC championship.
Manning saved his best for Sunday, when he intercepted three Philadelphia passes in the NFC championship game. One pickoff ended a possible Eagles scoring drive; another set up a Carolina touchdown.
Now the baby-faced Manning - at 23 years old, he's the youngest player on Carolina's roster - is one of the most popular Panthers.
"My phone doesn't stop ringing now, so I just keep it off," he said. "I don't know if I am a star, but that's the way everyone is making me feel. All I know is I am playing real well right now, so I think it's well deserved."
Manning has been on a mission all season.
A two-sport star from UCLA - he spent summers playing outfield for various Minnesota Twins farm teams - Manning was named to the All Pac-10 football team three times and felt he was one of the best cornerbacks in the draft.
But 81 players were selected before him - including 10 cornerbacks - and Manning couldn't help but feel snubbed when the Panthers called his name in the third round.
"I felt like my play was better than all the corners taken before me," Manning said. "But I guess because most of them were taller, everyone thought they'd be better NFL players than me. So I set out to prove everyone wrong."
At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, most teams figured Manning was too small for the NFL. Carolina coach John Fox decided to take a gamble.
"I don't like putting limitations on players," Fox said. "But I think the reason he lasted to that point was he's a little bit undersized. He's got a lot of magic. He's extremely tough mentally. To go this deep into your rookie season is really remarkable."
The Panthers worried Manning, who played extensively in five defensive back sets before he earned a starting role, would be worn out from a 16-game schedule. Instead, he's flourished late.
"I always asked other players about dealing with it, and they all said you just have to get through it," Manning said. "I was like, 'I don't want to just get through it, I want to be at my prime all year.' So I just started preparing in training camp and bust my butt and go through all the practices so I'd be in good shape right here at games 18 and 19."
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