When it¬†comesto handling Peyton Manning, there's theory and there's reality. Two scenes lastweek illustrate the difference:
Wednesday, 5:15p.m., the office of Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan in Owings Mills, Md."First and foremost," reads the game plan for Baltimore's AFCdivisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, "this is a finesse,non-physical offense." If a game plan can be both respectful anddisdainful, this one is; while Ryan acknowledges Manning's ability, he believeshis defense will attack the All-Pro quarterback with such speed and ferocitythat he won't know what hit him. "If you don't disrupt Peyton's timing andhis rhythm, you have no chance," Ryan told SI. "But as big a challengeas we face in Peyton, he faces a bigger challenge in us."
Saturday, 7:37p.m., M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In the scrum on the field after a15--6 Indianapolis victory, Ryan congratulates Manning, then trudges to thelocker room. "Damn!" he says, shaking his head after four quarters oftentative pass rushing by his unit, which was befuddled by Manning's offensivepuppeteering 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 bluffsall day. Tell you what, it's going to be hard to beat him now."
Suddenlyformidable again, the Colts (14--4) have much going for them heading intoSunday's AFC Championship Game at home in the RCA Dome against their postseasonrivals from New England. Their defense is reborn, with run-stuffing safety BobSanders back from a knee injury and playing like an extra linebacker. In twoplayoff games this year Indy has allowed only 14 points, 20 first downs andthree-of-22 third-down conversions. Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker ofall time, won Saturday's game with five field goals in five tries. With 2,007rushing yards in 18 games, the duo of rookie Joseph Addai and veteran DominicRhodes has more than made up for the free-agent loss of Edgerrin James, andAddai has proved to be nearly as good a blocker as James in blitz pickup, whichthis game illustrated.
Thecan't-win-the-big-one tag still hangs on the 30-year-old Manning, though heinsists he's not troubled by that. "I'm not into overanalyzing mycareer," he said after Saturday's win. "I'm into the journey, not thedestination." He also remains as cunning as ever. All week Ryan warned hisleague-leading defense about the wiggles and waggles Manning uses in the first10 seconds after he lines up under center. "We were going to ignore hisgyrations till late," said All-Pro outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, a270-pound guided missile whom Ryan launches at the quarterback from all overthe field. But Manning used quick counts to keep the Baltimore D off balance,and Thomas wound up waffling in his decision whether to bring an all-out rushor drop into coverage on the tight end.
The quick-countnotion came from an unusual source: the quarterback Manning will face in theRCA Dome on Sunday, the one with whom he's had several epic showdowns in recentyears. "I got some ideas from the Patriots," says Manning, referring toTom Brady's masterly performance in New England's 37--16 opening-round playoffwin. When the New York Jets tried to substitute, Brady quick-snapped them intoconfusion and penalties; when they hurried to the line, Brady let the playclock run down before the hike. Manning's first thought was that the Ravens usecomplex defensive disguises much like the Jets'. "So I came in and told myquarterbacks coach [Jim Caldwell], 'Let's look at the film to see how Brady didthat,'" Manning says. "I knew that against the Ravens if you don'tthrow changeups, you can't win."
It's no surprisethat Manning would learn something from Brady, and vice versa. They exchangee-mails and in the off-season play golf and socialize together. Before the 2006season they worked to persuade the NFL to change the way game balls areprepared. "We're both kind of football junkies," Manning said duringtraining camp. "When we do [get together] we're usually discussingfootball, trying to improve our games."
Brady and Manninghave faced off eight times. Brady is 6--2 in those meetings, including twoplayoff wins. But Manning has won the last two meetings, at Foxborough inNovember '05 and '06. Two months ago Brady had a nightmarish four-interceptiongame in Indy's 27--20 win. On Sunday night he sounded like a man eager to eventhe score. "Can't wait for next week already," the Patriots quarterbacksaid. "I just knew we'd be seeing the Colts again."
Manning made acouple of uncharacteristically impatient plays in his 15-of-30, 170-yard,no-touchdown, two-interception, one-sack day. But at least the picks came onthird-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, Manningastutely observed, "You gotta throw that out the window in a game likethis."
Two key passesillustrate Manning's value, stats be damned. Early in the third quarter, withIndy nursing a 9--3 lead, he went no-huddle to keep the Ravens from subbing. Ona first down from the Colts' 40, he sent tight end Dallas Clark up the rightseam, while Thomas blitzed from the same side. Addai picked off the chargingThomas three steps from the quarterback, allowing Manning's pinpoint pass tosail into Clark's arms. Gain of 27. Four plays later Vinatieri's fourth fieldgoal of the day--the record 33rd of his playoff career--made it 12--3."Great pickup by Addai," Manning said. "You can make throws likethat when you get that kind of protection."
Leading 12--6 inthe fourth quarter, Indy took over at its 36, and Manning's job was to bleedthe last 7:39 off the clock. He drove to the Baltimore 45 and faced athird-and-five with 3:57 to play. If he converted, the Ravens, with onetimeout, would have to battle against the clock. If he failed, Indy would puntand Baltimore would have the ball with three minutes and change, one SteveMcNair miracle drive away from the AFC title game. Manning sent Clark on ashort out-route designed to isolate him on a linebacker. But cat-quickcornerback Corey Ivy picked him up instead. "I knew exactly what the playwas," Ivy said. "I wasn't going to give Peyton any room to make thatthrow."
"The guy wasall over me," Clark said.
Manning's passcame within millimeters of Ivy's outstretched hand as it hit Clark for a14-yard gain. "It rolled up my arm, and I brought it in," said Clark.Three minutes later a 35-yard Vinatieri field goal sealed the win.
Baltimore fanshave never gotten over the Colts' move to Indianapolis 23 years ago, and losingthe first Colts-Ravens playoff game after finishing 13--3 was the ultimatebitter pill. Indy, meanwhile, welcomes in an old, familiar foe. Bill Belichickwill be certain to have something special cooked up for Manning, as he alwaysdoes. "Whoever they play," said Ivy, "Peyton will be ready. He'sthe best out there. He knew what we were going to do before we did. How do youprepare for that?"
The Ravens plotted to keep Manning (18) off-balance, but he wound up ruling theline of scrimmage.