Manning looks to keep Colts on course

INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS - Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is the richest man in his sport.

He is an obsessive-compulsive when it comes to film study and breaking down defenses. He has survived some horrific crashes while trying to conquer pro football's airspace. Now, he hopes to get his offense off the ground against an old nemesis.


With apologies to Howard Hughes, the NFL's version of The Aviator is the hottest thing flying this January.

"I'm glad he's on our side," Colts coach Tony Dungy said.


Dungy would have said the same thing a year ago even after his star quarterback was humiliated in a 24-14 loss at New England in the AFC championship game. Manning threw four interceptions and was sacked four times.

"I played like an absolute dog up there last year," Manning said Sunday after throwing for 457 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-24 wipeout of Denver in the AFC wild-card round at the RCA Dome. "No ifs, ands or buts about it."

A chance for atonement is here. Throwing for the second-most yards in NFL postseason history was nice. Being named the league's 2004 Most Valuable Player on Monday for a second consecutive season (he shared the honor with the Tennessee Titans' Steve McNair in '03) was special, too. But nothing will mean more than if the Colts can shut up the critics and shut down the Patriots on Sunday in Foxboro, Mass.

"Individually, I've accomplished a lot, I really have, but we haven't won a Super Bowl since I've been the quarterback here," Manning said. "We've got a shot now, and that's all you can ask for. Obviously, I'd like to go up there and help my team win the game - and I don't care if it's 35-34 or 3-0."

Don't bet on the latter. So, where will New England begin when it comes to game-planning against the NFL's top-ranked offense (404.7 yards per game)?

"Like I've told people before, it's not two guys. It's 11 guys," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said after watching his fifth-ranked defense give up 529 yards of offense. "The only way you're going to slow them down is by keeping the ball away from them."

Manning profited from offensive coordinator Tom Moore's system and set league records this season for touchdown passes (49) and quarterback rating (121.1). Tailback Edgerrin James was fourth in the league in rushing with 1,548 yards. Wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and former Raven Brandon Stokley each totaled at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tight ends Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark combined for more than 50 catches and 11 touchdowns.

"If I was sitting at home, I'd love to watch the Colts," Stokley said.


With a bye in the first round, Bill Belichick and the Patriots were sitting at home and watching Sunday. There are plenty of Manning skeptics who shrug off the gaudy numbers and point to some other statistical data.

Manning is 2-8 against the Patriots - including 1-5 against Belichick-coached teams - since arriving in the NFL as the first overall pick in the 1998 draft. He is 0-5 in Foxboro, including the AFC title-game disaster and a 27-24, season-opening loss Sept. 9 when the Colts had three turnovers inside the Patriots' 20.

Offensively, the Patriots have been able to do against the Colts what Shanahan's team could not. New England has had success controlling the ball and keeping Manning off the field, and workhorse back Corey Dillon (1,635 yards) should get a lot of opportunities Sunday. And the offense is more than Dillon: The Patriots were seventh in the NFL in total offense, and quarterback Tom Brady threw 28 touchdown passes.

But New England will be without cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, both of whom were sensational in the playoffs a year ago. That means receiver-turned-nickel back Troy Brown likely will be matched against Stokley and those big-play tight ends. And free safety Eugene Wilson and tackle Richard Seymour are nowhere near 100 percent healthy, which will make the Patriots' task even tougher.

If Manning and the Colts can't get it done this time, the catcalls are only going to get louder.

"I understand what it's like to come up short. I've been there," Manning said. "I know how disappointing it is. That's why you lift weights in March, for this opportunity. And you want to take advantage of it."


Last season's Colts ranked third in total offense and first in passing, but there's something about the '04 version that is different. Yes, the defense has problems, but the unit also deserves at least half the credit for the Colts leading the NFL in turnover margin (plus-19).

This is a more mature, more confident team across the board. And it starts at the top.

"I was around Joe Montana, Warren Moon and even O.J.," said Dungy, in his 27th NFL season as player, assistant or head coach. "I've been around guys where everything revolved around them. But Peyton is not the rock-star guy. It's hard to explain.

"He is the focal point. He is the star. But he's such a hard worker, such a blue-collar guy."

Dungy understands the notion that Manning needs to validate his legacy - one that seems to grow with every flick of his wrist - with a title.

"In the balance of history, probably so. That's what we focus on," Dungy said. "Dan Marino went through it, but obviously people of my era know how good Marino was. There are probably people growing up now who say, 'Yeah, well, he didn't win any Super Bowls.' But if Barry Bonds doesn't win a World Series, is he still a great player? Or Barry Sanders? People will know."


History is waiting.

"We have an opportunity, and this is what you play for," Manning said. "We know better how to deal in pressure-packed situations. And there's none more pressure-packed than in the playoffs."

Time to fly.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.