Fidgeting in hischair while fiddling with his omnipresent PDA, Reggie Wayne had sustenance onthe brain. "Man, I'm hungry," the Indianapolis Colts' wiry wideoutdeclared last Thursday night, his smile fading to a frown. He had just ordereda hearty Kansas City strip at Sullivan's, an Indy steak house, but what hereally craved was a much tougher part of the cow--some leather. Gesturingtoward six of his defensive teammates at a table teeming with seafoodappetizers, Wayne explained, "These guys know. Everyone wants the football,and when we don't get it we get mad. That's life with the Colts. Every Mondaysomebody on the offense is walking around with his lip pulled down. Right nowthat guy is me."
Three days beforefacing the Denver Broncos in the first truly big game of the 2006 NFL season,Wayne, the nominal No. 2 receiver on the league's most prolific offense, didn'tseem too concerned that Indy was preparing to face a defense that had beenpractically impenetrable over the first six games. "They're playing withsome swagger, but we can go after them," said Wayne. "These are thetimes when we all want the ball. And if I don't get it, I'll bepissed."
Welcome to PeytonManning's world, where feeding footballs to famished skill players is afull-time job. Nobody does it better--as the Colts' All-Pro quarterbackreminded the world in leading Indy to a stirring 34--31 victory at InvescoField at Mile High on Sunday. It was a game that debunked many myths: thatDenver's defense ranks with the league's alltime great units; that Indy'soffense is hamstrung by the departure of All-Pro running back Edgerrin James;that altitude, 76,767 screaming fans and a secondary constructed explicitly tostop Manning can keep him from dominating a big game. Oh, and this one: thatthe most intense pressure the Colts' quarterback faces is from opposing passrushers.
After shreddingDenver's secondary for 345 passing yards--138 of them to Wayne, who was smilingagain after his three touchdowns and 10 catches--Manning knew his task nextweek would be to placate Marvin Harrison (five catches, 38 yards, no TDs), oneof the great receivers in NFL history. The quarterback is so mindful of keepinghis receivers happy that he wears a cheat sheet on his wristband during gameslisting the plays that feature each of his starting wideouts. "I'm veryconscious of keeping our receivers involved," Manning said after Indyimproved to 7--0, setting up another juicy matchup with Tom Brady and the 6--1New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., next Sunday night. "They're bothultracompetitive, and I've never met a great receiver who doesn't have somesort of selfishness, from Jerry Rice on down. But the nice thing about our guysis, if they don't get catches, there's no press conference. We talk about it,and we move on."
The talk Manninghad with his offense with 18 seconds left in the first half on Sunday may nothave been overly profound, but the transformation it helped spark wasimpressive. His speech came in the huddle as Indy, trailing 14--6, prepared torun out the clock at its own 14-yard line. Denver's bend-but-don't-breakdefensive scheme had limited its previous six opponents to 44 total points anda pair of inconsequential TDs; Indy had been similarly subdued in the first twoquarters, settling for a pair of field goals after drives of 8:08 and 6:06."We're killing ourselves," Manning barked. "The only thing stoppingus is us. So let's do what the f--- we're supposed to do and finish thesedrives."
At that pointWayne wasn't particularly happy either. With All-Pro cornerback Champ Baileyshadowing Harrison and often getting over-the-top help from All-Pro safety JohnLynch, Wayne had expected to exploit second-year cornerback Darrent Williams.But he went into the locker room at halftime with just one catch for 12yards.
Denver's offensiveblueprint for beating the Colts--attack Indy's dubious run defense--seemed tobe sound, and embattled quarterback Jake Plummer (13 of 21, 174 yards, onetouchdown, no interceptions) had his best game of the season. But Manning (32of 39, 345 yards, three TDs, no picks) took over in the second half, as he andWayne made Williams look as befuddled as a Borat interview subject. It was forjust these moments that Indy re-signed Wayne, 27, to a six-year, $39.5 milliondeal last February, essentially choosing him over James, his friend and formerUniversity of Miami teammate who's now with Arizona.
Manning connectedwith Wayne for two touchdowns in the third quarter to take the lead, and then,after rookie Mike Bell's one-yard touchdown dive put the Broncos (5--2) up28--23 with 6:54 left, the Colts quarterback countered by going to Wayne fourtimes on the ensuing possession. The last completion, with 3:35 to go, came ona variation of a five-yard in pattern that some opposing defenses refer to asIndy. Operating from the shotgun on third-and-two from the Denver 19, Manningguessed that Williams would squat on the short route and called for apump-and-go. Williams bit, and Wayne zipped past him down the left sideline,catching a perfectly thrown touch pass in stride. Wayne then snagged thetwo-point conversation attempt to put Indy up 31--28.
The Broncos tiedthe game on Jason Elam's 49-yard field goal with 1:49 remaining--too much time.How often had Broncos fans watched John Elway thrive in similar circumstances?Now the breezy confidence could be found on the visitors' sidelines: We've gotPeyton Manning, and you don't. It took him seven plays, including consecutivecompletions to Wayne, to set up Adam Vinatieri, the former Patriots kickerwho's the most clutch performer at his position in NFL history. Had there beena thin vertical glass rod directly between the goalposts, Vinatieri's kickwould have shattered it. And just like that, with its first impressive victoryof the season, Indy became the first team in 75 years to have begun consecutiveseasons 7--0. Unlike last year, when the Colts won 13 straight before becomingdiscombobulated--and ultimately suffering a stunning playoff upset to theeventual Super Bowl--champion Pittsburgh Steelers--Tony Dungy's team does notappear to be in danger of peaking too early.
Heading home earlyon Monday morning from an Indianapolis bar where he and some teammates hadcelebrated the win, Wayne reflected on the likely ramifications of his big day:This week, he knows, Harrison will be the hungry one. "Here's some advicefor the New England game," Wayne said. "Don't put me on your fantasyteam."
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Says Manning, "The nice thing is that if our guysdon't get catches, there's NO PRESS CONFERENCE. We talk about it and moveon."
Photograph by Peter Read Miller
ALL MINE Along with the rest of Indy's skill-position players, Wayne wanted the ball against Denver, and Manning (opposite) got it to him--10 times, for 138 yards and three touchdowns.
A SHOE-IN After Manning's late-game mastery, the Colts turned to Vinatieri, who calmly poked home the game-winner.