INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts never doubted Peyton Manning would revert to his old form.
They just had to be patient enough to let him play out of those early-season struggles.
The reward: Manning’s remarkable second-half performance has quieted doubters, turned the Colts into the league’s hottest team entering the playoffs and has some politicking for what could be his record-tying third MVP award.
“What he’s done over the last two months has been outstanding,” coach Tony Dungy said Wednesday. “I think you’d have a hard time arguing that someone else helped their team win more than Peyton has helped us win.”
In many ways, it looks like just a typical season for Manning.
He has started all 15 games and is ready to make his 176th consecutive start Sunday against Tennessee. He needs 93 yards to extend his NFL record of 4,000-yard seasons to nine. His three TD passes last week at Jacksonville gave him 26 this year, extending his own league mark to 11 straight seasons with at least 25 TDs.
The truth is, 2008 has been anything far from normal.
When the Colts reported to training camp, Manning was still resting at his Indianapolis home, recovering from the first significant injury of his pro career. He lost about 10 pounds after having surgery on his left knee and didn’t practice until late August, a rarity for someone who takes almost every snap in practice.
Predictably, it took another two months before he started producing more customary results.
One explanation for the slow start might have been a second knee surgery, which he didn’t reveal until late October.
He also spent the first month playing behind a makeshift offensive line that allowed nine sacks in the first five games.
“After the (first) Tennessee game, we kind of found a solid five on the line, and that’s really helped,” Manning said.
But the biggest obstacle has been Indy’s struggling ground game. The Colts (11-4) still rank 31st in the league, and it’s likely the team’s rushing leader will finish with the fewest yards since Manning arrived in 1998. Manning has had only one NFL season in which he didn’t have a 1,000 yard runner, 2002 when Edgerrin James had 989 yards.
The lack of consistency put a greater strain Manning’s talented right shoulder, and it took time for the nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback to adapt.
“It’s like I said before, he was hitting long fly balls, they were just going outside the foul pole. We were hoping he wouldn’t straighten them out before we played the first time,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday. “But he’s played very, very well the last two weeks.”
The proof is in the numbers.
He’s turned a surprisingly low early-season quarterback rating into a distant memory by ascending to No. 3 in the AFC at 93.8. During the Colts’ eight-game winning streak, Manning has thrown 16 touchdown passes, four interceptions and taken only four sacks.
And, as usual, Manning has played his best when it’s mattered most. He’s led the Colts to six comeback victories in the fourth quarter or overtime this season.
For most quarterbacks, those stats would signify a career year.
In Manning’s case, it’s merely another part of the legacy.
“We’ve never been under the gun like we were this year,” said Jim Sorgi, who has spent five seasons as Manning’s backup. “When we’ve started, we’ve always been 7-0, 9-0, and the way we started this year (3-4), we would have been out of it with another loss or two. It’s been pretty impressive.”
The question is whether Manning has enough magic left to make another Super Bowl run.
Many believe the Colts poor ground game will cost them when the playoffs start. They point to the old adage that you have to run and stop the run to win in January.
But Manning has turned conventional wisdom upside down.
His reliance on a shorter passing game has made up for the lack of yards rushing, and he’s turned to tight ends Dallas Clark and Gijon Robinson more frequently. Clark had 20 receptions for 247 yards the last two weeks.
Against the Jaguars, Manning played well enough to earn another AFC offensive player of the week award, completing 29-of-34 for 364 yards and falling one short of Donovan McNabb’s NFL record for consecutive completions (24).
To Manning, it’s just part of the game.
“It’s been nice what we’ve done, but it’s also been a necessity,” he said. “We started off slowly, but it was just a matter of getting back to playing good football. There were no players-only meetings or anything like that, it was just doing the things that we’ve done in the past.”
The Colts now lead the league in red-zone touchdown percentage (70.2) and third-down conversions (49.7) — two key ingredients to advancing in the postseason.
But will that be enough to get Indy to a Super Bowl in Dungy’s adopted hometown of Tampa or get Manning another MVP award?
Indy is content letting Manning script the answer.
“I think he’s played as well as he has played over the years,” longtime center Jeff Saturday said. “He’s putting some balls in tight windows and the receivers have done a good job getting open. He’s playing well, and we’re playing well.”