Peyton Manning Carries Colts to Postseason

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IDecember 20, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - We figured Peyton Manning was carrying Indianapolis to the playoffs.

But what transpired Thursday night was simply ridiculous.

Manning did more than help the Colts clinch a postseason berth with a 31-24 victory at Jacksonville. He may have become the front-runner for the NFL's most prestigious regular-season award after an aerial display that Colts coach Tony Dungy described as "unbelievable."

"This was an MVP performance, for sure," Dungy said.

Such praise doesn't stem solely from Manning's gaudy statistical line — 29-for-34 passing for 364 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. The Colts quarterback had no help from his running game (just 32 yards on 18 carries) and no defensive support through the first three quarters.

No biggie. He dug Indianapolis out of a 14-0 hole and continued systematically picking apart Jacksonville's pass defense until the Colts finally took the lead with 4:48 remaining.

"I don't know that I've seen him play that well in a while," said Jeff Saturday, Manning's center the past nine seasons. "He was definitely dialed in."

So much so that Manning could have added a Verizon commercial to his lengthy list of endorsements. Manning completed his first 17 attempts. He didn't miss until almost four minutes into the third quarter. Had he connected with wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, Manning would have tied Donovan McNabb's NFL record of 24 straight completions over a two-game span.

Manning knew he was hot but didn't realize just how sizzling until speaking with Colts assistant coaches Jim Caldwell and Clyde Christensen at halftime.

"They said, 'You haven't thrown an incompletion. We don't really have a whole lot of coaching points for you. Just try to keep doing what you're doing,'" Manning said.

He really had no choice. Just like in a Week 3 loss to the Jaguars (5-10), Indianapolis (11-4) was being gouged by Jacksonville's running game. Inspired by a pre-game speech from Richard Collier — the wheelchair-bound Jaguars tackle who was severely wounded in a September shooting — Jacksonville held a 24-14 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Asked what type of pep talk he gave teammates while leaving the stadium, Collier quipped, "Not a long enough one."

The Jaguars started to come apart after Manning's 1-yard touchdown toss to tight end Dallas Clark early in the fourth quarter. After a Jaguars three-and-out, Manning led another drive capped by Adam Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal to tie the score at 24-24.

Jaguars quarterback David Garrard then made the kind of mistake Manning was able to avoid. Unnoticed by Garrard, Colts cornerback Keiwan Ratliff zipped in front of wide receiver Dennis Northcutt to intercept a short pass and return it 35 yards for a touchdown.

Manning couldn't put the game away when the Colts regained possession, but he didn't have to. After reaching the Colts 7-yard line, Garrard was sacked by defensive end Dwight Freeney for a 9-yard loss as time expired.

That's when Indianapolis could celebrate an eighth consecutive victory and the clinching of the AFC's No. 5 playoff seed. While the Colts still would have controlled their own postseason destiny if they lost Thursday, Indianapolis now has the luxury of resting injured players like wide receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Joe Addai in its Dec. 28 season-finale against Tennessee.

"Coach Dungy doesn't use 'must-win' very often unless we're in the playoffs, but he did last night," Manning said. "When he said that, obviously you realize how serious today's game was. I really wanted to come down and do my part."

Manning had other inspiration. He wore a wristband that said "SB 33" in honor of Sammy Baugh, the Hall of Fame quarterback who died Tuesday at the age of 94. Manning said he traveled to the tiny West Texas town of Rotan eight years ago for a photo shoot with the legend nicknamed "Slingin' Sammy."

"I was slinging it tonight," Manning said. "I hope Sammy got a smile out of that game."

Capturing a third MVP award would put a grin on Manning's face. He is the NFL's hottest quarterback since midseason with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions in the past eight games.

But even if he doesn't win the MVP, this season has proven gratifying to Manning on many levels.

Manning clearly wasn't himself in September, the result of a missed preseason following two knee surgeries. Manning wouldn't use that as an excuse Thursday for his slow start but did allow that he "is in favor of participating in training camp. It's all I've ever known and I've always felt good coming into the first game of the season. This was not the way you want to go into the season. I do feel I've improved throughout."

The same goes for the entire squad. The Colts have gotten healthier — especially along the offensive line — and are playing smarter after their 3-4 start. Indianapolis has posted a positive turnover ratio in the past eight games and drastically reduced their penalties.

"Being 3-4, we had to win eight in a row. We had no choice," Manning said. "It's certainly been challenging to overcome a lot of obstacles, injuries and different scenarios we've been in. But we've done it as a team."

A team with a signal-caller no opponent should want to face in the playoffs.

"You want to be playing at that level where you feel you could put the team on your back," Saturday said. "I think he feels that's where he is right now."

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