Like that, one of Marino's records went out the window: It was Manning's 13th consecutive game with at least two touchdown tosses, breaking an NFL mark shared by Marino, Unitas, Favre and Don Meredith. Manning worships quarterbacks in general and is especially awed by Marino because of the unmatched consistency displayed by the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. (He's on the ballot in February.) The two faced off four times before Marino retired in March 2000--Manning went 1-3--and last February in South Florida they became playing partners on the golf course. "I went down there to play in his tournament, and I wanted to hide out for a few days afterward while my contract was being worked out," Manning says. "Dan told me I could stay in his guesthouse. Some people feel you can be too old to have heroes, but I'm 28, and I don't think so."
So, while Manning was in the midst of becoming the NFL's richest man (ultimately signing a seven-year, $98 million contract extension with a record $34.5 million signing bonus), he really got in touch with his inner fan. Call it the M&M Show: Though Manning never serenaded Marino's wife, Claire, with chants of "Cut that meat," the signature line from his funny MasterCard commercial, he thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Casa Marino. The two quarterbacks played rounds of golf at elite courses, sipped vintage red wine and had a grand old time.
"My kids just loved sitting around with him talking after dinner," Marino recalls. "They're Peyton Manning fans. [Around me] he wasn't nervous or anything like that. Or if he was, I didn't notice it. He's cool."
The same can't necessarily be said about Manning's receivers in 2004. "Things are tense," James acknowledges. "When you do get the ball, you know you have to do something with it because you might not see it for a while. Somebody's going to be mad every week; it's just a question of who."
Earlier this year Harrison was frustrated by his lack of involvement, at one point voicing his displeasure to ABC's Michele Tafoya in an off-camera interview. Having caught an NFL-record 143 passes in 2002, Harrison (three catches on Sunday, 70 for the season) has seen a steady reduction in opportunities as Manning has grown more comfortable with Wayne, Stokley and Clark. "I know it's been an adjustment for Marvin," Manning said last Friday while sitting in his home office. "Hey, it's a good thing we don't huddle, because otherwise I'd hear a lot of griping from everyone." Then, gesturing to his Labradors, Manning added, "Colt and Rookie here are my two favorite receivers because they don't talk back."
The quarterback laughed, then predicted that the touchdown-pass record might not come as easily as people expect it will. "I'm telling you, it's hard to throw for a touchdown, and I have a feeling it's going to get harder," he said. "I think defenses are going to start dropping everybody into coverage in the red zone, thinking, He's not getting the record on us. And I'm telling you, if they do, I'll hand it off to Edgerrin every single play. It'll make you sick how much we'll run it if they dare us to. Heck, I'll call a quarterback draw."
After getting burned on the first two drives, Texans defensive coordinator Vic Fangio changed up coverages, mixing in man-to-man schemes behind the Texans' usual zones. "They threw a lot of junk at us," Wayne said, "and that's what we're going to get the rest of the way--junk."
It all looked good enough to Manning, who left the locker room nearly an hour after the game with a black 2004 AFC SOUTH CHAMPIONS hat on his head and a huge grin on his face. He emerged from a tunnel and slowly walked across the field with his wife, Ashley, his older brother, Cooper, and the only quarterback he worships more than Marino. It had been a bittersweet day for Archie and the Manning family--Peyton's younger brother, Eli, the New York Giants' rookie quarterback, had played miserably in a 37-14 loss to the Ravens--but this had been another memorable moment in an extraordinary season.
As Irsay, the admiring owner, had said earlier, "To do the things Peyton's been doing week in and week out, it's kind of like when a Bob Dylan comes along--you don't see someone like that very often."
Blame it on a simple twist of fate.