WHEN IT comes to
handling Peyton Manning, there's theory and there's reality. Two scenes
illustrate the difference:
10, 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, nonphysical 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 said. "But as big a challenge as
we face in Peyton, he faces a bigger challenge in us."
13, 7:37 p.m., M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In the scrum on the field
after a 15--6 Colts 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."
formidable again, the Colts (14--4) have much going for them heading into the
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
can't-win-the-big-one tag still hangs on Manning, though he insists he's not
troubled by that. "I'm not into overanalyzing my career," he said after
the win over the Ravens. "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. But Manning used quick counts to keep the
Baltimore D off balance, and outside linebacker Adalius Thomas wound up
waffling in his decision whether to bring an all-out rush or drop into coverage
on the tight end.
notion came from an unusual source: the quarterback Manning will face in the
RCA Dome on Jan. 21, 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 this
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, Mass.,
in November '05 and '06. Two months ago Brady had a nightmarish
four-interception game in Indy's 27--20 win. After downing the Chargers in the
other AFC divisional game, Brady 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 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."