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Test of Mettle

Shaken by the injury to Tom Brady, nursing a bad knee and suddenly vulnerable behind a patchwork offensive line, Peyton Manning is confronting the greatest challenge of his career

THE CLIP ran allweek, in slow motion and high definition, prompting a cycle of anguish in NewEngland and a twisted sense of optimism everywhere else. But the rival whomight have the most to gain from what the footage showed could not bringhimself to watch it. ¬∂ For all the video that Peyton Manning pores over eachweek, he does not watch many highlight shows; he's more interested in thenuances of the game than the theatrics. But this particular highlight, ofKansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard's hit on Patriots quarterback TomBrady's left knee, was practically unavoidable—shown at the top and bottom ofevery hour, and at countless intervals in between. Each time Manning heard ateaser for the clip, he turned away from the tube. "I couldn't look,"he said with a wince last week. "I'm sick about what happened."

Manning's careerwould have been a lot more straightforward had Brady never come along. Heprobably would have won another Super Bowl or two. He might have built adynasty in Indianapolis. There would certainly be no debate about the bestquarterback of this era. But now that Brady is gone for the season, replaced byMatt Cassel after tearing his medial collateral and anterior cruciateligaments, Manning finds himself like Magic without Bird, missing the oneplayer against whom he has been constantly measured.

By halftime onSunday in Minneapolis it seemed that the NFL had lost not one of its marqueequarterbacks, but two. Manning, skittish for the second game in a row, hadpassed for only 86 yards. The Colts were down 9--0 to the Vikings at theMetrodome and were headed toward an 0--2 start for the first time in a decade.Something had to be wrong with Manning. Was his achy left knee throwing off hisgame, his leaky offensive line leaving him exposed, his dormant running gamefailing to provide support? Or was it a hint of self-doubt in the wake of theinjury to his great rival?

All of itbothered Manning, but none of it broke him. Just when the AFC landscape wasabout to shift permanently, he willed it back into place. He led the Colts on atouchdown drive in the third quarter, another in the fourth and then a drive inthe final minute that led to a game-winning, 47-yard field goal by AdamVinatieri with eight seconds on the clock. It was not the most glamorousperformance of his 11-year career, but the 18--15 win was among his most gutsy."Vintage Manning," Colts running back Dominic Rhodes gushed. "Tome, this ranks right up there with the Super Bowl."

Such hyperbole isusually reserved for Colts versus Patriots. But when those teams meet thisyear, on Nov. 2 in Indianapolis, the matchup will not gain a catchy nicknamelike Super Bowl XLII1/2. It will be big, undoubtedly, with playoffimplications, but Manning-Cassel does not have the ring of Manning-Brady."You know, I am going to miss Tom Brady," Colts defensive tackle RaheemBrock says. "He's put us through a lot over the years, so I like hittinghim."

Since Sept. 30,2001, when Brady made his first career start, against Manning and the Colts,the NFL has revolved around those two teams and those two quarterbacks. Manningand Brady were easy to sell as opposites. One was country, the otherCalifornia. One married his college girlfriend, the other dated an actress anda supermodel. One was drafted No. 1 and supposedly could not win the big games.The other was drafted 199th and supposedly could not lose them.

But the two couldnever muster the personal enmity that fuels classic rivalries. Manning andBrady first hung out together in 2002 at the Quarterback Challenge, a skillscompetition in Hawaii, and over the course of that week in paradise discoveredhow much they had in common. After they teamed up in '06 to successfullypetition the NFL to allow visiting quarterbacks to use their own footballs inroad games, Tom Brady Sr. told a reporter that his son and Manning were"like soul brothers."

Theirs is a21st-century friendship, sustained by text messages and occasional phone calls.During training camp this year they traded texts lamenting their injuries,Brady a bum foot and Manning a bad knee. Before the opener they wished eachother luck. And on the morning after the season opener, when Manning knew thatBrady was injured but not how severely, he sent wishes for a speedy recovery.By the afternoon, when it became obvious that a speedy recovery was out of thequestion, Manning recognized that a text message would not do.

"I called himand told him I was sorry," Manning says. "He got back to me and said itmust not have been in the cards for him to play this year."

Manning shook hishead as he recalled the exchange, disappointed for a peer and fully aware thatit could happen to anybody—even him. After all, he is the one who had surgeryon his left knee in July to repair an infected bursa sac and did not play orpractice in the preseason. He is the one who in the second half on Sundaycrouched behind four offensive linemen new to the team or to their position,including a rookie at center in Jamey Richard, drafted in the seventh round outof Buffalo, and another at left tackle in Steve Justice, drafted in the sixthout of Wake Forest. And Manning is the one who has thrown 91 passes in thefirst two games as the Colts have played from behind, allowing defenses to comeafter him.

MANNING LIKES tosay he's a 32-year-old in a 28-year-old body, thanks to his line's peerlessprotection. He has started every regular-season game since he came into theleague in 1998, 162 in all, an accomplishment that means as much to him as hispassing records. But to see Brady go down, after 128 consecutive starts,reminds Manning of his own football mortality. To make the point even clearer,the Chicago Bears and the Vikings hit him a combined 11 times in the past twoweeks.

"A couplethings are happening," Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams said lastweek. "Peyton's not moving as well as he was before the surgery, and theiroffensive line isn't what it used to be. Some of those young guys are gettingkilled."

The Bears and theVikings employed similar strategies against the Colts, walking linebackers upto the line of scrimmage and sending them on blitzes through the middle,attempting to overwhelm Richard. Typically, the Indianapolis center has one ofthe most hectic jobs in the league. He has to change blocking assignments everytime Manning changes plays, which, of course, is every few seconds. JeffSaturday, who had started all but two games for the Colts since 2000, has notrouble multitasking. But without Saturday, who has missed the first two gameswhile rehabbing a torn ligament in his right knee, Manning is making fewerchanges, and the linemen have to communicate the blocking assignments to eachother.

After the Bearsbeat the Colts 29--13 in the opener, Chicago defensive end Adewale Ogunleyecrowed, "You could see how confused Peyton was. He didn't know what thehell was going on."

Manning, whoseinternal clock is as reliable as Big Ben, says he usually has 3.5 seconds toget rid of the ball. So far this season he estimates he's getting only two.Part of the reason is the cobbled-together line, missing not just Saturday butalso guard Ryan Lilja, who's recovering from off-season surgery on his rightknee. Then on Sunday left tackle Tony Ugoh hurt his groin in the second quarterand didn't return. But Manning believes the added pressure has more to do withIndy's feeble running game, which is gaining just 2.3 yards per carry.

In watching tapeof the Colts last week, Williams did notice one aspect of their running gamethat impressed him. "Their tailbacks don't cut block," he said. The cutblock is typically the most efficient way to handle a bigger player—a runningback will dive at a defensive lineman's feet and take his legs out from underhim. The problem with the cut block is that it puts a defender on the ground,where he's more likely to grab or roll onto a quarterback's leg. "That'spretty much how Brady got hurt," Williams said. "The Colts don't wantanyone rolling into Peyton like that. It's why they don't cut."

Still, late inthe second quarter on Sunday, Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards fell to theground while on the rush and grabbed Manning's right foot. As the quarterbacktumbled to the turf, he clutched his right knee. Manning was fine, but giventhe events of the previous Sunday, it was a frightening image for the Colts—andfor the NFL. "You have to remember that every down, every snap, the mostimportant thing is protecting him," says Justice. "You have to protectyour best player."

The hit wasreminiscent of the Colts' last trip to the Metrodome, for a preseason game in2001, when Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan rolled into the back ofManning's right knee. In that game, much like this one, the Colts were missinga starting guard, Steve McKinney, forcing rookie Rick DeMulling into thelineup. Asked about that play last week, Manning said it was hard to recall,but when pressed as to who'd gotten beaten, he smiled and said, "It wasDeMulling." A quarterback, especially one with Manning's steel-trap memory,does not easily forget shots to the knee.

MANNING'STOUGHNESS is the most underrated part of his game. He has missed only one NFLplay due to injury, in November 2001, after he was hit underneath hischinstrap. Manning's jaw was broken, and he was spitting blood, but he chargedback onto the field after one snap. Now he's playing on a knee that takes abouta half to get loose. Not coincidentally, it was late in the third quarter onSunday when Manning connected for 58 yards with receiver Anthony Gonzalez, whoas he went down lateraled the ball to Reggie Wayne for 18 more yards, settingup the Colts' first touchdown. Gonzalez called the lateral "probably thedumbest thing I've ever done," but it was just crazy enough to work.

The Vikings,picked by many as a Super Bowl contender, are now 0--2. Their startingquarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, led five field goal drives and was booed at theend of each one. The crowd sensed what Jackson did not: Even if Manning wereplaying on one leg, field goals were not going to beat him.

But in the longerrun, if the Colts are to take advantage of Brady's absence and reach theirsecond Super Bowl in three years, they must rediscover the balance they struckat the end of 2006 and beginning of '07. As much as Manning likes to drop backand let fly, he recognizes that he needs his running backs to shoulder more ofthe load if he's going to finish the season upright. After Sunday's game, hechallenged his coaches to get Pro Bowl tailback Joseph Addai more touches anduse him in more creative ways.

If Indianapolisdoes regain control of the AFC, the players know what they will hear fromskeptics: that they had it easy because Brady was out. With the Colts and thePatriots, it always has to be something. "Honestly, I'll take any edge wecan get," says Indy cornerback Tim Jennings. "And I think they'd feelexactly the same way if we didn't have Peyton."

Manning's less mobile, says Williams, and Indy'sO-line "isn't what it used to be. Some of those young guys ARE GETTINGKILLED."

MANNING'S TOUGHNESS is the most underrated part of hisgame. In 11 years he has missed only one NFL play due to injury.



Check out Bucky Brooks's early leaders for MVP, defensive player of the yearand other awards.



Photograph by John Biever

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? Manning had to alter his play-calling style in Minnesota to make his message clear to his blockers.



OUCH! Peyton took some tough shots from Vikes.



CRUNCH TIME Indy's blockers asserted themselves on Rhodes's late two-point conversion.



[See caption above]



SLEIGHT OF HAND Manning used every trick he knew—including a lefty pass—to rally the Colts from a 15-point deficit.