|ESPN.com: AFC South||[Print without images]|
|AP Photo/Phil Coale|
|Peyton Manning completed his first 17 passes and finished with 364 yards and three touchdowns in Indianapolis' win over Jacksonville.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- His wristband said SB, but on a night when Peyton Manning was Super Bowl quality, it meant something else.
"A little SB 33 in tribute to Sammy Baugh," Manning said, referring to the Hall of Famer who passed away this week. "...We did a photo shoot together for Sports Illustrated. They kind of took a player of the old century and a player of the new century, and I had to go to Rotan, Texas, to his home to do the picture. We spent about eight hours together and talked a lot of football.
"It was really a special day in my life, I got a great picture of it. So I was thinking about that day today and thinking about what he did, a real pioneer as a quarterback. Thinking about Sammy Baugh, I was slingin' it tonight, we were slinging it tonight. And I hope Sammy got a smile out of that game tonight."
Perhaps only Manning could put forth such a precise performance in a game that clinched a playoff spot, then frame it so nicely, just like that SI picture.
It's no surprise when he's magical, but still. Seventeen completions in a row to open the game? They fell perfectly into waiting arms, dropped at just the right angle through tight windows, zipped inches past extended fingertips of defenders and a few floated to wide open targets.
Manning's final line: 29 of 34 for 364 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks, a 140.7 rating and some suggestions the best quarterback playing right now -- the quarterback who was all out of sync and uncomfortable early this season after missing all of the preseason following two knee surgeries -- has never been any sharper.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen him have a better performance under the circumstances that he had tonight," Colts president Bill Polian said, lining up the NFL Network for a shot. "It's too bad the vast majority of America couldn't see it. If they did, there would be no question about who the MVP is. He was virtually by himself tonight. We ran for [1.8 a carry], Joseph Addai is hurt, Marvin Harrison is not here. I think we got one stop in our first [five] possessions defensively. It's hard to be perfect. He was perfect."
In a bigger setting -- in front of cameras, microphones and recorders -- Tony Dungy plugged Manning's MVP candidacy as well. The quarterback reacted, of course, with an aw-shucks embarrassment, referring to a lost Heisman Trophy in his last year at Tennessee in 1997.
"It's not like college where you've got to have your coach and your PR staff campaign for you, I've been through that route," he said.
The Colts clinched the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoff field with the win. Now they've got a long rest before a season finale Dec. 28 against Tennessee that will mean nothing to them for the second season in a row. If the Titans beat Pittsburgh Sunday, it won't mean anything to Tennessee either. Dungy is sure to rest everybody he can.
The coach told the team Wednesday night the game was a must-win, terminology he rarely touches. And while Manning's performance keyed things, two defensive plays clinched it.
David Garrard, in position to lead the Jaguars to the upset, failed miserably in those two moments:
With 4:58 left, he threw a short pass to the left side intended for Reggie Williams. Keiwan Ratliff stepped in front of it for the interception and took it 35 yards for the score that was the winning margin. Had Ratliff not made the play, at least one other Colt, maybe two, could have grabbed it. The throw was that bad.
Still, with 12 seconds left, Garrard had his team 7 yards from the end zone and committed the most atrocious sin with the game hanging in the balance, absorbing a 9-yard Dwight Freeney sack.
"You just can't take the sack right there," he said, an admission that will do nothing to ease the sting for the home fans.
Meanwhile, Manning said he worked his way completely across the field twice to Reggie Wayne on plays where the receiver was his fourth read.
Tight end Dallas Clark caught eight passes, one just over the outstretched hand of linebacker Clint Ingram, another against tight sideline coverage by a cornerback. Clark wouldn't ordinarily be surprised by such throws. On this night he definitely wasn't.
"I don't notice it very often, but just the way he was throwing the ball in pregame you could kind of tell he was feeling it," Clark said.
These Colts are a grittier, tougher team than previous versions. Nobody in the playoff field will welcome the matchup, even at home.
"The last few years we were all worried about home-field advantage and things like that," Clark said. "That wasn't even an option this year. It was just get in. I think that caused a lot of great composure, a lot of great character to come out late in the season here."
Look out, warned Dominic Rhodes, the running back who was all smiles after the game despite a grand total of 27 rushing yards on 14 carries with Addai out of action.
"Right now [Manning] seems like he's on top of his game, we're getting it done at the right time and that's all that matters," Rhodes said. "Right now we're playing some pretty good ball. We know how to play, we're a veteran group. We know how to win tough ball games. We just need to keep it going. We've got to go get it done."