As the yin and yang of the Colts' universe, defensive whiz Dungy and offensive scholar Manning bond mostly while plotting football strategy. The two watch film together twice a week, with Dungy, a former college quarterback and NFL defensive back, pointing out the nuances of the opponent's defensive tendencies. Dungy, says Bucs safety John Lynch, "has an innate ability to boil things down to basics and come up with a game plan, even after watching only a couple of hours of film."
Manning does not consider himself to be similarly blessed. He says he gets his "edge" from nothing more mysterious than the late-night sessions in the video room of his Indianapolis home. "I've never left the field saying, 'I could've done more to get ready,' " he says, "and that gives me peace of mind." Ashley will sometimes enter the room after midnight and find Peyton asleep in his reclining leather chair, the remote in his passing hand. He is such a stickler for details that, he says, "if a coach shows us film of an entire game but skips the kneel-down at the end, I make a point of watching it at home. Sometimes the body language of the defender [as the clock runs out] tells me something. Does he shake hands right away? Or is he like [ Buffalo Bills safety] Lawyer Milloy, who just stands there with his hands on his hips, staring blankly, because he's so devastated by losing?"
He realizes that an understanding wife and the fact that the couple are not yet parents allow him to devote so much time to the game. Children, he hopes, will come soon enough. "I've never seen a guy with so much ability and the dedication to match," Dungy says. "People can't imagine what he does in this offense and how much we put on him—not only changing plays at the line but also getting us in the right formations and protection schemes. We do things casually that most teams can't do or wouldn't want to try."
After the playoff loss to the Jets, Manning and Dungy had a long meeting to discuss ways to improve the team. The coach pulled out a spiral notebook and jotted down some of his quarterback's ideas. The two came away committed to scaling back the offense, which would benefit the young players. Now, instead of locking in on star wideout Marvin Harrison when he makes his play calls at the line, Manning looks more eagerly to younger targets, such as Reggie Wayne, Troy Walters and Brandon Stokley.
As a result of these and other adjustments, Manning is playing the best football of his career. A confident passer who too often forced throws into coverage—he had 23 interceptions in 2001—Manning has made a dramatic shift by taking what the defense gives him. He has been picked off only nine times this season. "He's taking some of the short stuff and not forcing the ball up the field as much," says Bills president Tom Donahoe. "Sometimes offensive coordinators and quarterbacks don't like those six-, seven-, eight-yard gains, but they start to add up. The other thing those passes do is keep the defense honest. When you throw short early, the defense comes up to stop that, and it opens up the deeper stuff."
On Sunday, Manning completed 25 of 30 attempts for 290 yards and five touchdowns. He has a league-high 28 scoring tosses and is 99 yards shy of extending his own record by becoming the first NFL passer to throw for more than 4,000 yards five years in a row. "Right now Peyton is the most efficient quarterback in the game," said Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan. "He's a lot smarter than he was earlier in his career, so he doesn't take those risks. He reminds me of [the Oakland Raiders'] Rich Gannon last year: first read, second read, third read—knowing where the holes are in the zone. He was picking us apart."
Manning's quarterback rating of 101.6 is second only to the 102.4 of McNair, his primary competition for league MVP honors. Manning says the award holds less allure for him because finishing second to Michigan's Charles Woodson in the '97 Heisman Trophy balloting "left a sour taste in my mouth," a condition no doubt exacerbated by his brother Eli's third-place finish in this year's vote, announced last Saturday. (Their father, Archie, an Ole Miss star, like Eli, and later a New Orleans Saints stand-out, finished fourth in 1969 and third in '70.)
What's more palatable to Peyton is that the Colts did not let the effects of that inglorious loss to the Jets carry over into this season. Again, that's largely his doing. Manning had won some big games before this season, notably a 23-20 come-from-behind overtime victory against the Broncos in snowy Denver in November 2002, but arguably the two most significant triumphs of his career have come in 2003. Two months before his happy return to Tennessee, Manning, on a warm Monday night in Tampa, gave Dungy a 48th-birthday present to remember: He rallied the Colts from a 35-14 fourth-quarter deficit with three touchdowns in the final 3:37 of regulation before pulling out a 38-35 overtime win.
Afterward Dungy wrapped his arm around Manning's neck and shepherded him through a media throng and into the locker room tunnel. Says Manning, "For a while after Tony got here, some of us wondered, Are we his guys, the way John Lynch and [ Bucs linebacker] Derrick Brooks were in Tampa? That night, as we were leaving the field, I felt it. Then we got in the locker room, and the team sang Happy Birthday. It was an awesome moment."
Alas, the same couldn't be said for Manning's crooning at Tootsie's. "I hope Peyton won't be offended, but Kid Rock's a hell of a lot better singer," says Switzer, who was in Nashville to watch his son Greg, an accomplished pianist, record songs for a demo tape.