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Fidgeting in his chair while fiddling with his omnipresent PDA, Reggie Wayne had sustenance on the brain. "Man, I'm hungry," the Indianapolis Colts' wiry wideout declared last Thursday night, his smile fading to a frown. He had just ordered a hearty Kansas City strip at Sullivan's, an Indy steak house, but what he really craved was a much tougher part of the cow--some leather. Gesturing toward six of his defensive teammates at a table teeming with seafood appetizers, Wayne explained, "These guys know. Everyone wants the football, and when we don't get it we get mad. That's life with the Colts. Every Monday somebody on the offense is walking around with his lip pulled down. Right now that guy is me."
Three days before facing the Denver Broncos in the first truly big game of the 2006 NFL season, Wayne, the nominal No. 2 receiver on the league's most prolific offense, didn't seem too concerned that Indy was preparing to face a defense that had been practically impenetrable over the first six games. "They're playing with some swagger, but we can go after them," said Wayne. "These are the times when we all want the ball. And if I don't get it, I'll be pissed."
Welcome to Peyton Manning's world, where feeding footballs to famished skill players is a full-time job. Nobody does it better--as the Colts' All-Pro quarterback reminded the world in leading Indy to a stirring 34--31 victory at Invesco Field at Mile High on Sunday. It was a game that debunked many myths: that Denver's defense ranks with the league's alltime great units; that Indy's offense is hamstrung by the departure of All-Pro running back Edgerrin James; that altitude, 76,767 screaming fans and a secondary constructed explicitly to stop Manning can keep him from dominating a big game. Oh, and this one: that the most intense pressure the Colts' quarterback faces is from opposing pass rushers.
After shredding Denver's secondary for 345 passing yards--138 of them to Wayne, who was smiling again after his three touchdowns and 10 catches--Manning knew his task next week would be to placate Marvin Harrison (five catches, 38 yards, no TDs), one of the great receivers in NFL history. The quarterback is so mindful of keeping his receivers happy that he wears a cheat sheet on his wristband during games listing the plays that feature each of his starting wideouts. "I'm very conscious of keeping our receivers involved," Manning said after Indy improved to 7--0, setting up another juicy matchup with Tom Brady and the 6--1 New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., next Sunday night. "They're both ultracompetitive, and I've never met a great receiver who doesn't have some sort of selfishness, from Jerry Rice on down. But the nice thing about our guys is, if they don't get catches, there's no press conference. We talk about it, and we move on."
The talk Manning had with his offense with 18 seconds left in the first half on Sunday may not have been overly profound, but the transformation it helped spark was impressive. His speech came in the huddle as Indy, trailing 14--6, prepared to run out the clock at its own 14-yard line. Denver's bend-but-don't-break defensive scheme had limited its previous six opponents to 44 total points and a pair of inconsequential TDs; Indy had been similarly subdued in the first two quarters, settling for a pair of field goals after drives of 8:08 and 6:06. "We're killing ourselves," Manning barked. "The only thing stopping us is us. So let's do what the f--- we're supposed to do and finish these drives."
At that point Wayne wasn't particularly happy either. With All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey shadowing Harrison and often getting over-the-top help from All-Pro safety John Lynch, Wayne had expected to exploit second-year cornerback Darrent Williams. But he went into the locker room at halftime with just one catch for 12 yards.
Denver's offensive blueprint for beating the Colts--attack Indy's dubious run defense--seemed to be sound, and embattled quarterback Jake Plummer (13 of 21, 174 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) had his best game of the season. But Manning (32 of 39, 345 yards, three TDs, no picks) took over in the second half, as he and Wayne made Williams look as befuddled as a Borat interview subject. It was for just these moments that Indy re-signed Wayne, 27, to a six-year, $39.5 million deal last February, essentially choosing him over James, his friend and former University of Miami teammate who's now with Arizona.
Manning connected with Wayne for two touchdowns in the third quarter to take the lead, and then, after rookie Mike Bell's one-yard touchdown dive put the Broncos (5--2) up 28--23 with 6:54 left, the Colts quarterback countered by going to Wayne four times on the ensuing possession. The last completion, with 3:35 to go, came on a variation of a five-yard in pattern that some opposing defenses refer to as Indy. Operating from the shotgun on third-and-two from the Denver 19, Manning guessed that Williams would squat on the short route and called for a pump-and-go. Williams bit, and Wayne zipped past him down the left sideline, catching a perfectly thrown touch pass in stride. Wayne then snagged the two-point conversation attempt to put Indy up 31--28.
The Broncos tied the game on Jason Elam's 49-yard field goal with 1:49 remaining--too much time. How often had Broncos fans watched John Elway thrive in similar circumstances? Now the breezy confidence could be found on the visitors' sidelines: We've got Peyton Manning, and you don't. It took him seven plays, including consecutive completions to Wayne, to set up Adam Vinatieri, the former Patriots kicker who's the most clutch performer at his position in NFL history. Had there been a thin vertical glass rod directly between the goalposts, Vinatieri's kick would have shattered it. And just like that, with its first impressive victory of the season, Indy became the first team in 75 years to have begun consecutive seasons 7--0. Unlike last year, when the Colts won 13 straight before becoming discombobulated--and ultimately suffering a stunning playoff upset to the eventual Super Bowl--champion Pittsburgh Steelers-- Tony Dungy's team does not appear to be in danger of peaking too early.
Heading home early on Monday morning from an Indianapolis bar where he and some teammates had celebrated the win, Wayne reflected on the likely ramifications of his big day: This week, he knows, Harrison will be the hungry one. "Here's some advice for the New England game," Wayne said. "Don't put me on your fantasy team."