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Hand Him the MVP Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is having the best season of his six-year career, but to silence his critics he has to win in the playoffs

For a man who prides himself on his meticulous preparation,
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has a curious habit
of packing only enough clothes to get him through a 24-hour road
trip. That means whenever the Colts win a road game and are given
the next two days off by coach Tony Dungy--and Manning and his
wife, Ashley, decide to remain in the city they're visiting
rather than fly home after the game--the Pro Bowl passer who is
ready for every situation on the football field is a day late and
a pair of underwear short. ¶ Chalk that up to a yearning for
spontaneity in an otherwise structured life. Yes, even the
27-year-old Manning, a member of Southern football's royal
family and a projected NFL star since he started shaving, has
to let loose on occasion. So it was that Manning, after the
Colts' 29-27 win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville on Dec.
7--arguably the quarterback's biggest victory in a six-year
career marked by few defining moments--found himself onstage in
a famed Music City honky-tonk singing Rocky Top, his alma
mater's fight song. In the audience Ashley, several college
buddies from Peyton's days at Tennessee, three Colts teammates,
scores of strangers, the most fun-loving football coach of the
modern era and a country band soon to be fronted by a rock-rap
icon from Motown looked on in amazement.

Or, more simply put, after outdueling Titans quarterback Steve
McNair to give the Colts control of the AFC South, Manning and
his gang rolled into Tootsie's and partied into the night with
Barry Switzer and Kid Rock. By the time Kid Rock brought down the
house with a cover of Bob Seger's Night Moves, Manning felt like
a cowboy without a care. "All week long I'd stayed up until one
in the morning watching film," he said last Thursday. "There was
so much buildup, and when we won, this great feeling of
satisfaction washed over me, and it was finally time to

If Manning has his druthers, as he did in Sunday's 38-7 home
victory over the Atlanta Falcons, which lifted Indianapolis to
11-3 and sent the team to the playoffs for the fourth time in
five years, bigger celebrations will follow. Like Dungy, the
Colts' second-year coach, Manning is an admired and respected
leader in search of a championship, a man whose easygoing
demeanor overshadows his fierce competitiveness. Because Manning
(0-3 in the playoffs) and Dungy (2-5, with no Super Bowl
appearances) have failed to measure up in the postseason, the
personality traits that make them likable--friendly, studious,
mild-mannered, among others--are ultimately cited as reasons for
their failures. In the wake of a 41-0 wild-card loss to the New
York Jets last January, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt griped
during an interview with a Toronto television reporter that the
coach and quarterback lacked the fire to take the team to the
next level.

Manning issued a sharp rebuke, calling Vanderjagt an "idiot
kicker" during ABC's telecast of the Pro Bowl, but he knows the
best rebuttal would be to take his team to the Super Bowl. "I
don't hide from the playoff thing, and neither does Tony,"
Manning says. "The bottom line is that until we win, we're going
to hear about it."

Dungy, probably the most pleasant soul in a profession that
breeds paranoia and surliness, scoffs at the notion that Manning
can't win a big game, a charge that has dogged the passer since
he completed a stellar collegiate career without having beaten
Florida in three starts. "It's ludicrous," Dungy says. "I used to
hear that about John Elway, Steve Young, Roger Staubach and Brett
Favre, too."

Manning is similarly defensive about Dungy's record, noting that
the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach "was a third-down stop away
from the Super Bowl." That was in the 1999 NFC Championship Game,
when the Bucs held a 6-5 lead over the St. Louis Rams until Kurt
Warner threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to wideout Ricky Proehl
with 4:44 remaining. Two years and two opening-round playoff
defeats later, Dungy was fired despite a 54-42 regular-season
record with Tampa Bay. His successor, Jon Gruden, would lead the
Bucs to their first Super Bowl championship in his first season.

Dungy, meanwhile, was hired by Indianapolis to replace the fired
Jim Mora and also found success, transforming a 6-10 flop into a
10-6 wild-card team. Along with first-year coordinator Ron Meeks,
Dungy overhauled the Colts' 29th-ranked defense and improved its
standing to eighth best in the league. His critics say he isn't
tough enough, but his teams certainly play a disciplined brand of
football, largely because of the tone he sets, and his
no-nonsense approach has won over the players. "If I had to play
for any coach, he's the one," says halfback Edgerrin James. "When
things go bad, instead of griping or complaining, he looks for
the solution."

"I don't apologize for being a nice guy," Dungy says. "Nice guys
get upset too. Nice guys get fined $10,000 by the NFL for
criticizing the officials [as Dungy did after the '99 season

Likewise, Manning says outsiders can be fooled by his own affable
exterior. "If people think I'm a laid-back guy," he says, "that's
their mistake." Yes, he makes an effort to be friendly, chatting
up rookie free agents at minicamps and talking with well-wishers
at airports and restaurants. But on the field Manning can be
caustic and exacting. Tight end Marcus Pollard remembers
questioning Manning on a play call during practice early in the
quarterback's career. "Hey," Manning snapped, "if I tell you it's
Easter, you'd better hunt for eggs."

As the yin and yang of the Colts' universe, defensive whiz Dungy
and offensive scholar Manning bond mostly while plotting football
strategy. The two watch film together twice a week, with Dungy, a
former college quarterback and NFL defensive back, pointing out
the nuances of the opponent's defensive tendencies. Dungy, says
Bucs safety John Lynch, "has an innate ability to boil things
down to basics and come up with a game plan, even after watching
only a couple of hours of film."

Manning does not consider himself to be similarly blessed. He
says he gets his "edge" from nothing more mysterious than the
late-night sessions in the video room of his Indianapolis home.
"I've never left the field saying, 'I could've done more to get
ready,'" he says, "and that gives me peace of mind." Ashley will
sometimes enter the room after midnight and find Peyton asleep in
his reclining leather chair, the remote in his passing hand. He
is such a stickler for details that, he says, "if a coach shows
us film of an entire game but skips the kneel-down at the end, I
make a point of watching it at home. Sometimes the body language
of the defender [as the clock runs out] tells me something. Does
he shake hands right away? Or is he like [Buffalo Bills safety]
Lawyer Milloy, who just stands there with his hands on his hips,
staring blankly, because he's so devastated by losing?"

He realizes that an understanding wife and the fact that the
couple are not yet parents allow him to devote so much time to
the game. Children, he hopes, will come soon enough. "I've never
seen a guy with so much ability and the dedication to match,"
Dungy says. "People can't imagine what he does in this offense
and how much we put on him--not only changing plays at the line
but also getting us in the right formations and protection
schemes. We do things casually that most teams can't do or
wouldn't want to try."

After the playoff loss to the Jets, Manning and Dungy had a long
meeting to discuss ways to improve the team. The coach pulled out
a spiral notebook and jotted down some of his quarterback's
ideas. The two came away committed to scaling back the offense,
which would benefit the young players. Now, instead of locking in
on star wideout Marvin Harrison when he makes his play calls at
the line, Manning looks more eagerly to younger targets, such as
Reggie Wayne, Troy Walters and Brandon Stokley.

As a result of these and other adjustments, Manning is playing
the best football of his career. A confident passer who too often
forced throws into coverage--he had 23 interceptions in
2001--Manning has made a dramatic shift by taking what the
defense gives him. He has been picked off only nine times this
season. "He's taking some of the short stuff and not forcing the
ball up the field as much," says Bills president Tom Donahoe.
"Sometimes offensive coordinators and quarterbacks don't like
those six-, seven-, eight-yard gains, but they start to add up.
The other thing those passes do is keep the defense honest. When
you throw short early, the defense comes up to stop that, and it
opens up the deeper stuff."

On Sunday, Manning completed 25 of 30 attempts for 290 yards and
five touchdowns. He has a league-high 28 scoring tosses and is 99
yards shy of extending his own record by becoming the first NFL
passer to throw for more than 4,000 yards five years in a row.
"Right now Peyton is the most efficient quarterback in the game,"
said Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan. "He's a lot smarter than he
was earlier in his career, so he doesn't take those risks. He
reminds me of [the Oakland Raiders'] Rich Gannon last year: first
read, second read, third read--knowing where the holes are in the
zone. He was picking us apart."

Manning's quarterback rating of 101.6 is second only to the 102.4
of McNair, his primary competition for league MVP honors. Manning
says the award holds less allure for him because finishing second
to Michigan's Charles Woodson in the '97 Heisman Trophy balloting
"left a sour taste in my mouth," a condition no doubt exacerbated
by his brother Eli's third-place finish in this year's vote,
announced last Saturday. (Their father, Archie, an Ole Miss star,
like Eli, and later a New Orleans Saints standout, finished
fourth in 1969 and third in '70.)

What's more palatable to Peyton is that the Colts did not let the
effects of that inglorious loss to the Jets carry over into this
season. Again, that's largely his doing. Manning had won some big
games before this season, notably a 23-20 come-from-behind
overtime victory against the Broncos in snowy Denver in November
2002, but arguably the two most significant triumphs of his
career have come in 2003. Two months before his happy return to
Tennessee, Manning, on a warm Monday night in Tampa, gave Dungy a
48th-birthday present to remember: He rallied the Colts from a
35-14 fourth-quarter deficit with three touchdowns in the final
3:37 of regulation before pulling out a 38-35 overtime win.

Afterward Dungy wrapped his arm around Manning's neck and
shepherded him through a media throng and into the locker room
tunnel. Says Manning, "For a while after Tony got here, some of
us wondered, Are we his guys, the way John Lynch and [Bucs
linebacker] Derrick Brooks were in Tampa? That night, as we were
leaving the field, I felt it. Then we got in the locker room, and
the team sang Happy Birthday. It was an awesome moment."

Alas, the same couldn't be said for Manning's crooning at
Tootsie's. "I hope Peyton won't be offended, but Kid Rock's a
hell of a lot better singer," says Switzer, who was in Nashville
to watch his son Greg, an accomplished pianist, record songs for
a demo tape.

"Greatest day of my life, and the game was pretty good, too,"
Colts guard Rick DeMulling told Manning as Kid Rock completed his
hourlong set. While DeMulling and two teammates, defensive end
Brad Scioli and tackle Ryan Diem, sealed off Kid Rock from the
masses, and some of Manning's college buddies danced atop the
wooden bar, the quarterback couldn't resist looking ahead to the
playoffs and Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. He quizzed Switzer,
who guided the Dallas Cowboys to their fifth championship, in
January 1996, on what it takes to win it all.

Then Kid Rock made a promise. "If y'all are in Houston," he said,
"I'll be there, front row."

"Well," Manning answered, "I'd love to be there." Rest assured
that if he makes it, Manning won't be carrying much baggage.
Michael Silver's Open Mike, every Thursday at

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER MASTER AND COMMANDER In leading his team to an 11-3 record, Manning has been nearly flawless at the helm of the Colts' complex offense.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (DUNGY) LOOKS ARE DECEIVING Critics say Dungy goes too easy on his team, but the players get his message loud and clear.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER PASSING THROUGH Manning needs 99 yards to extend to five his NFL record for consecutive 4,000-yard seasons.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS CONNECTED Manning and Harrison hooked up for a pair of touchdowns in the win against the Falcons on Sunday.

"I've never seen a guy with SO MUCH ABILITY AND THE DEDICATION to
match," Dungy says of Manning.