BEING HIMSELF

Just when the Colts needed it most, Peyton Manning has helped the Colts win eight consecutive games and qualify for a seventh consecutive postseason appearance. Colts President Bill Polian said Manning's play during the stretch compares to the NFL's all-time great quarterbacking performances.

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Manning Playing at Historical Level, Polian Says
INDIANAPOLIS – He has played at an elite level before. Often.

In fact, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has done it enough to sometimes make the elite look routine, somehow.

He has made the Pro Bowl nine times. Twice he has been named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Another time, he was the runner-up for MVP.

He has won a Super Bowl, and been named the MVP for that game, too.

Now, Manning has done it again.

Just when the Colts needed it most, Manning – an 11-year veteran who never has missed a NFL start – has turned in one of the most impressive stretches of his career, helping the Colts overcome a 3-4 start to win eight consecutive games and qualify for a seventh consecutive postseason appearance.

"It's kind of him being himself," Colts tight end Dallas Clark said Tuesday as the Colts (11-4) prepared to play the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans (13-2) in the regular-season finale at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.

And in this case, it has been more.

How much more?

Consider:

The Colts were under .500 after seven games for the first time in a decade and had lost back-to-back road games by double digits for the first time in Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy's seven seasons. Had the season ended in late October, the Colts would have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

At the time, Manning – who missed training camp and preseason after offseason knee surgery –had thrown 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In eight games since, Manning has completed 202 of 283 passes for 2,153 yards and 16 touchdowns with three interceptions for a passer rating of 107.7.

How much more?

Consider:

In the first seven games of the season, he had two games with a passer rating over 90.

In the last eight games, he has had seven such games.

How much more?

Consider:

Colts President Bill Polian was asked this week on his weekly radio to assess Manning's performance this season. The names he used for comparison were a list of some of the best players ever to play the position:

Y.A. Tittle in 1963, when he set the then-NFL single-season record with 36 touchdown passes.

Dan Marino in 1984, when he set the then-NFL single-season record with 48 touchdown passes.

Manning in 2004, when he threw 49 touchdown passes.

Tom Brady last season, when he threw 50.

Polian, too, offered an additional assessment:

"I don't remember anybody playing as well in terms of since he has been back – from Game 5 on. I don't know that anybody has played as well as he has."

And while some observers early in the season questioned whether Manning – because of the injury – could reach his full effectiveness this season, Polian said those close to the Colts did not.

"No. 1, he is the consummate professional," Polian said. "No. 2, knowing what I did about the injury, I realized that other than conditioning and timing, there would be no residual from the injury. There is nothing you have to worry about long term. Knowing that, I had a feeling he would be back on schedule pretty quickly.

"That was the case. Fourth game in, he was gunning the way he normally did."

In that fourth game, Manning threw two touchdown passes in a come-from-behind victory at Houston. The following week, he had his best statistical game of the season's first half, throwing three touchdown passes in a 31-3 victory over Baltimore.

The following two weeks were losses at Green Bay and Tennessee, with Manning throwing two interceptions in each game, but in the eight games since, he has sandwiched two streaks of three games without an interception around a two-game mini-stretch in which he threw his only interceptions of the season's second half.

"He's playing as well as he's played," Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "He's focused in and he has put the ball in some tight windows. I think our receivers have done a fantastic job of getting open and making some catches, some incredible catches.

"I think both have complemented each other very well. It's been an impressive thing to watch."

Particularly impressive, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said this week, were the circumstances under which Manning and the receivers performed. Throughout Manning's career, the Colts have typically been a pass-oriented offense, but have run well enough to force defenses to focus on that area. This season, the Colts are ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing, their lowest ranking in that area in Manning's career.

The Colts this season also have played through a series of injuries on the offensive line, with Saturday, guard Mike Pollak and tackle Tony Ugoh all missing time. Of the Colts' offensive lineman, only right tackle Ryan Diem has started every game at the same position this season.

Manning, even with his 10-touchdown, nine-interception start, has completed 364 of 548 passes for 3,907 yards and 26 touchdowns with 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 93.8.

"We've done it without really running the ball as well as we normally have," Dungy said. "There's been a lot that has fallen on the passing game, and those guys have executed, they've stayed away from turnovers in spite of the fact that we aren't running it as well as we would like. That's probably been the biggest difference."

His 26 touchdowns have gone to seven different receivers, with wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark catching six touchdowns, wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez catching four and wide receiver Marvin Harrison catching five.

Running back Dominic Rhodes has caught three touchdown passes, with tight end Tom Santi and running back Joseph Addai catching one each.

It's the first time since 1998, his rookie season, he has not had a receiver catch at least 10 touchdown passes.

"He is spreading it to a lot of people," Dungy said. "Different guys have had the hot games. It's really been him following his reads and throwing accurately to whoever the defense dictates, and he's been exceptional."

Said Clark, "He's just really making some great decisions, making some great throws. Everyone across the board is doing their jobs. He's getting great protection and receivers are making some good catches. It's just kind of him doing what he does best."

Which is what he did again last Thursday, as the Colts completed their run to the postseason with their fourth double-digit road rally of the season.

Manning, a day after being voted to a seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, completed 29 of 34 passes for 364 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He completed his first 17 passes, including all 13 in the first half, and his 23 consecutive completions over two games were one completion shy of an NFL record.

Manning was named AFC's Offensive Player of the Week for the performance.

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

Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio agreed, saying, "It was an MVP-type performance. It was sensational. We did things you can't do against anybody, but if you do them against Peyton Manning he's going to torch you."

Said Polian, "He's the Most Valuable Player, at least in my mind."

The player who has spent perhaps the most time with Manning over the last half decade agreed. Jim Sorgi has been the Colts' backup quarterback since 2004, the year Manning set the single-season touchdown record. The next year, he watched Manning lead the Colts to a 13-0 start, and the following year, he watched as Manning quarterbacked the Colts to a Super Bowl title.

This season, has been different, Sorgi said – in an equally-impressive and equally-elite way.

"It's been pretty impressive," Sorgi said. "We've never been under the gun when we started. We've always been 7-0 or 9-0, then we lose a game or two, but we're still going to make the playoffs. This year, it was, 'We're 3-4 and if we lose one or two more games, the playoffs could be out.' To have an eight-game streak with the way he played, especially these last few games – down in Jacksonville, he was on fire.

"You really have to have a true appreciation. I think everybody does who likes the game of football appreciates what he has done. I see it from the inside. I appreciate every game he plays, because I know how much he does on the field, but I think the last nine weeks, everybody has to appreciate that."

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