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NEW YORK -- Much of the past week I've spent researching and writing a Peyton Manning story for Sports Illustrated's NFL midseason report, which you'll see this week. I'll get to the games of the day and issues of the week in a few paragraphs -- particularly the Cowboys growing up before our eyes last night in Philly, the mayhem around the Browns and the five biggest stories of 2009's First Half -- but I want to open with this year's installment of November madness, the New England-Indianapolis series. The Pats and Colts play Sunday night in Indianapolis, and even though the two teams will spend today tightly battening down the hatches so their all-important "focus'' isn't disturbed, let me do the honors.
I officially declare Patriots-Colts Hype Week kicked off.
November Sweeps Factoid of the Week: This is the fifth straight year the Colts and Pats have met in the first half of November.
More than all other games, New England-Indy is the game TV loves. This will be the seventh straight year the Colts and Patriots have faced off, and each has been a Super Bowl contender every time they've met. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Colts and Patriots sit atop the NFL with identical 83-21 regular-season records. In the six previous seasons, they've made the playoffs a total of 11 times, and the only time one didn't is last year, when the Patriots lost Tom Brady eight minutes into the season and still finished 11-5, losing the AFC East on a playoff tiebreaker with Miami.
The Peyton vs. Tom angle is always good, and that'll be played up all week. Both survived 2008 knee injuries and are playing superbly again. But in preparing the Manning story, I got this from Qadry Ismail, the former receiver (he played one year for the Colts, 2002, before retiring with a neck injury) who was one of a few people I reached to try to dissect why Manning was playing so well with a new cast of characters this year. Ismail's delightfully opinionated, and the matchup he loves in this game is Manning-Belichick, not Manning-Brady.
"Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick are twins from another lifetime,'' Ismail said. "They both have the same mom and dad. [Writer's Note: That would surprise Archie and Olivia Manning, and Jeannette Belichick.] When I read about Belichick's life, it's Peyton to a T. No matter who you put around Peyton with the Colts, the beat goes on. No matter who you put on Belichick's team, the beat goes on. They don't allow anything to interfere with winning.''
It's an interesting comparison. Belichick grew up idolizing the football team -- particularly Roger Staubach -- at the Naval Academy, where his dad, Steve, coached. Manning grew up idolizing his dad, the quarterback of the Saints. Both hung around the game from age 6 on, Belichick riding to the Baltimore airport with his dad to pick up game films when they arrived from next week's opponent, then watching them with the team when his dad allowed. Manning watched film at home in New Orleans when his dad brought his work home. Not much has changed. In training camp this year, former Patriots DB Ellis Hobbs told me it wasn't rare for Belichick to call him into his office and put on tape of the receiver he'd be facing that week, then sit there watching the player's tendencies for 45 minutes. In Indianapolis last week, I learned rookie receiver Austin Collie and Manning sit together every Thursday, alone, to watch video, apart from the endless meetings where the team and positions groups watch game and practice tape.
"I can never repay him for what he taught me about football,'' Hobbs said of Belichick.
"I'm getting a football education from Peyton,'' Collie said of Manning.
Both will be in full CIA mode for this one. Belichick always is. Manning's usually a great storyteller, but he zipped it pretty tight last week, amiably declining my request for a one-on-one. We spent five minutes after his weekly media scrum at his locker Wednesday, and these were the only things I learned: He wears a Timex digital watch with a Gatorade logo that's set 11 minutes ahead of real time; and he has a ridiculously vivid memory of everything he's ever done in this game. He remembers the formation, the cornerback and the play from Ismail's first touchdown in the 2002 season-opener. He's like one of those golfers who can recite hole-by-hole club selection and shot distance in his sleep.
I actually didn't mind Manning not talking. He's so good and vivid and descriptive that you can become entranced by his words and stories. In this story, I could tell what I wanted to tell about his adjustment to life without so many familiar pieces from the angles and stories of others both in his life and formerly in it.
In the editing process, one of the stories was lost. I wanted to share it with you. It has to do with Manning's refusal to be second at anything. Or at least his distaste for second place. Here goes:
Most who know Manning talk about his competitiveness. Tony Dungy said he thought when Manning agreed to host Saturday Night Live after the Colts won the Super Bowl, he wouldn't take it as an all-expense-paid vacation week in New York. It'd be a work week. "He'd want to be the best host they ever had,'' said Dungy.
"The first day, Monday, you could tell how much it mattered to him,'' said Seth Meyers, a nine-year vet on the show. "He came in with a big binder with color-coded tabs, and he'd take notes on everything. Even though we'd pass out script changes as the week went on, he'd be taking notes about all the changes.''
One of Manning's skits was a faux NFL/United Way commercial. Manning and a bunch of 8- to 13-year-old kids lined up for a pickup game on a Manhattan field, Manning being the NFL hero, the kids being the starstruck kids. Manning played the game like they were NFL players, whipping the ball like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were his wideouts. When an 11-ish-year-old boy got nailed in the back with a pass, Manning looked totally disgusted and stared the kid down. "All right, back in here, let's go ... except you. I can't even look at you. Go sit in the port-o-let for 20 minutes. Stay in there!''
The kid went into the portable toilet on the side of the field, then peeked out. Manning yelled, "WHY IS THAT DOOR OPEN! Close the door!''
The cast on hand couldn't believe it. The portable toilet wasn't even a part of the skit. Manning changed the play at the thespian line of scrimmage. "Totally unscripted,'' Meyers said. "Hilarious. It was an excellent example of how he sees the field. Off the top of his head, he just improvised.''
Improvise. Now there's a word you'd better know if you play receiver for the Colts.
I go on to write about how no route is ever set in stone with the Colts, and why it's so hard to play receiver there. I think I've gotten beneath the surface of the closed city of Manning a bit, but I'll let you be the judge of that. Hope you like the story a tenth as much as you like Colts-Pats on Sunday.
The Broncos and Saints might have shown human sides the past three weeks, but they're the best team stories of the first half of the season.
The Colts are good. Cleveland stinks. Oakland's lost. So what else is new? A lot, actually. Big stories of the NFL's first half:
1. Josh McDaniels wasn't crazy for dumping Jay Cutler. Denver sped to a 6-0 start and sits atop the AFC West even though McDaniels dealt a franchise QB, Cutler, for a marginal one, Kyle Orton, in April. "No one will care if we win,'' the Kid Coach said then. He's been proven right.
2. New Orleans isn't kidding around. With the best offensive free-agent in history, Drew Brees, you knew the Saints would score. What you didn't know is that Gregg Williams -- hired after coach Sean Payton gave up $250,000 of his own salary to help pay him -- would build a top-10 defense. New Orleans has beaten three big, bad playoff contenders from the East (Jets, Eagles, Giants) by an average of 20 points. I like what the 8-0 Saints have shown the past three weeks, rebounding from a 24-3 deficit in Miami and a 14-0 deficit against Carolina, sandwiching a back-and-forth Monday-nighter with Atlanta. They're close to the pack, but I still call the Saints the best team in football. They can beat you too many ways.
3. Parity's dead. For now anyway. After eight weeks, six teams had one win or less. The Bucs finished ahead of the Saints each of the past two years, but they're seven games apart in the standings now. The reason for the bottom-feeding: Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, St. Louis and Detroit ripped up their organizations, and rosters, after last year and started from scratch. Those five teams are 5-35.
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