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Freaking 'em Out
Peter King
January 22, 2007
When the plan is to fluster Peyton Manning, he's an expert at turning the tables on a defense
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January 22, 2007

Freaking 'em Out

When the plan is to fluster Peyton Manning, he's an expert at turning the tables on a defense

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When it�comes to handling Peyton Manning, there's theory and there's reality. Two scenes last week illustrate the difference:

Wednesday, 5:15 p.m., the office of Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan in Owings Mills, Md. "First and foremost," reads the game plan for Baltimore's AFC divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, "this is a finesse, non-physical offense." If a game plan can be both respectful and disdainful, this one is; while Ryan acknowledges Manning's ability, he believes his defense will attack the All-Pro quarterback with such speed and ferocity that he won't know what hit him. "If you don't disrupt Peyton's timing and his rhythm, you have no chance," Ryan told SI. "But as big a challenge as we face in Peyton, he faces a bigger challenge in us."

Saturday, 7:37 p.m., M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In the scrum on the field after a 15--6 Indianapolis victory, Ryan congratulates Manning, then trudges to the locker room. "Damn!" he says, shaking his head after four quarters of tentative pass rushing by his unit, which was befuddled by Manning's offensive puppeteering and held sackless for the first 49 minutes. "He's a stud," Ryan says. "An unbelievable player. He didn't fall for one of our bluffs all day. Tell you what, it's going to be hard to beat him now."

Suddenly formidable again, the Colts (14--4) have much going for them heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game at home in the RCA Dome against their postseason rivals from New England. Their defense is reborn, with run-stuffing safety Bob Sanders back from a knee injury and playing like an extra linebacker. In two playoff games this year Indy has allowed only 14 points, 20 first downs and three-of-22 third-down conversions. Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker of all time, won Saturday's game with five field goals in five tries. With 2,007 rushing yards in 18 games, the duo of rookie Joseph Addai and veteran Dominic Rhodes has more than made up for the free-agent loss of Edgerrin James, and Addai has proved to be nearly as good a blocker as James in blitz pickup, which this game illustrated.

The can't-win-the-big-one tag still hangs on the 30-year-old Manning, though he insists he's not troubled by that. "I'm not into overanalyzing my career," he said after Saturday's win. "I'm into the journey, not the destination." He also remains as cunning as ever. All week Ryan warned his league-leading defense about the wiggles and waggles Manning uses in the first 10 seconds after he lines up under center. "We were going to ignore his gyrations till late," said All-Pro outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, a 270-pound guided missile whom Ryan launches at the quarterback from all over the field. But Manning used quick counts to keep the Baltimore D off balance, and Thomas wound up waffling in his decision whether to bring an all-out rush or drop into coverage on the tight end.

The quick-count notion came from an unusual source: the quarterback Manning will face in the RCA Dome on Sunday, the one with whom he's had several epic showdowns in recent years. "I got some ideas from the Patriots," says Manning, referring to Tom Brady's masterly performance in New England's 37--16 opening-round playoff win. When the New York Jets tried to substitute, Brady quick-snapped them into confusion and penalties; when they hurried to the line, Brady let the play clock run down before the hike. Manning's first thought was that the Ravens use complex defensive disguises much like the Jets'. "So I came in and told my quarterbacks coach [ Jim Caldwell], 'Let's look at the film to see how Brady did that,'" Manning says. "I knew that against the Ravens if you don't throw changeups, you can't win."

It's no surprise that Manning would learn something from Brady, and vice versa. They exchange e-mails and in the off-season play golf and socialize together. Before the 2006 season they worked to persuade the NFL to change the way game balls are prepared. "We're both kind of football junkies," Manning said during training camp. "When we do [get together] we're usually discussing football, trying to improve our games."

Brady and Manning have faced off eight times. Brady is 6--2 in those meetings, including two playoff wins. But Manning has won the last two meetings, at Foxborough in November '05 and '06. Two months ago Brady had a nightmarish four-interception game in Indy's 27--20 win. On Sunday night he sounded like a man eager to even the score. "Can't wait for next week already," the Patriots quarterback said. "I just knew we'd be seeing the Colts again."

Manning made a couple of uncharacteristically impatient plays in his 15-of-30, 170-yard, no-touchdown, two-interception, one-sack day. But at least the picks came on third-and-17 and third-and-10, and they traveled 49 and 26 yards downfield, respectively. Informed that he had a quarterback rating of 39.6, Manning astutely observed, "You gotta throw that out the window in a game like this."

Two key passes illustrate Manning's value, stats be damned. Early in the third quarter, with Indy nursing a 9--3 lead, he went no-huddle to keep the Ravens from subbing. On a first down from the Colts' 40, he sent tight end Dallas Clark up the right seam, while Thomas blitzed from the same side. Addai picked off the charging Thomas three steps from the quarterback, allowing Manning's pinpoint pass to sail into Clark's arms. Gain of 27. Four plays later Vinatieri's fourth field goal of the day--the record 33rd of his playoff career--made it 12--3. "Great pickup by Addai," Manning said. "You can make throws like that when you get that kind of protection."

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