Friday, January 5, 2007 Updated: January 6, 4:38 PM ET
Chief goal: Get inside Manning's head
By Michael Smith ESPN.com
Earlier this week, Peyton Manning was asked the inevitable question about his legacy as he leads the Colts into the playoffs for the seventh time, the previous six trips having produced three victories and no championships.
"I'm caught up in the Chiefs right now with the short week," the Colts' QB said. "That's kind of what I'm into is trying to get prepared for this week and trying to get a win against the Chiefs. That's really all I'm thinking about at this point."
Ah, but Kansas City hopes that will change at some point during Saturday's AFC wild-card game. The Chiefs would love nothing more than to frustrate the game's most cerebral quarterback into thinking about the big picture along with their improved defense.
The Chiefs want Manning thinking, operating, pressing as if the Colts' offense will get precious few opportunities and must maximize them to compensate for the Indianapolis defense's inability to get off the field. As efficient as the Colts' third-ranked offense was during the regular season, so was the opposition's. Indianapolis set a league record by converting 56.1 percent of its third downs, and the defense allowed a 47.1 percent third-down conversion rate, highest in the league.
For the second straight season, the Colts had the fewest possessions in football, 156 -- 13 fewer than the Texans. Let's say the Colts, on average, have the ball nine or 10 times per game. Here's what the Chiefs are thinking, based on nine Colts possessions: One turnover reduces the number to eight. Controlling the clock takes it down to seven. Seven was the magic number for the Texans, who upset the Colts two weeks ago. Late in that game, Manning didn't hide his frustration with his defense, imploring his teammates to give the ball back to the offense.
The Chiefs want Manning to believe he must play flawlessly in a shortened game for the Colts to win. Kansas City will drop eight or nine defenders into coverage and force Manning to settle for the short stuff and fit passes into tight windows.
Speaking of windows, we're all waiting for this group of Colts to finally win a Super Bowl. The defense is what it is, so whether Indianapolis gets a step closer to Super Bowl XLI will come down to whether Manning stays patient.
The key is "to understand that we can function that way," head coach Tony Dungy said. "If we have to take seven plays rather than three plays, as long as we do our job, we can still move the ball and score."
Surely by now everyone knows how the Chiefs plan to counter the Colts' offense. "Your whole mind-set is, 'We have to play keep-away,'" head coach Herman Edwards said. "Well, how do you play keep-away? You have to try to run the ball."
Against Indy, teams have run for a league-high 173 yards per game. Colts opponents ran 519 times this season, the second-most attempts in the league. And not only did they run, but they ran in what ordinarily would be considered passing situations. According to Stats Inc., Colts opponents ran nearly 45 percent of the time they faced second-and-7 to -10 yards, 50 percent of the time on second-and-11 or longer, and on 35 percent of their third downs.
Defenses test the patience of the Colts' offense, Manning in particular. Teams don't defend Manning the way they did in 2004, when he threw a record 49 touchdown passes. Back then he faced more blitzes and man-to-man defense. Now, he sees mostly zone defenses designed to prevent big plays. With experience, he has become more willing to hand the ball off when there are seven defenders in the box or take the underneath throws when the defense plays soft.
The Colts have evolved into an offense that is more methodical than explosive. Indianapolis finished second in the league with 33 10-play drives and led the league with 18 touchdown drives of 10 plays or more. The Colts' average time of possession, however, is only 29 minutes, 32 seconds because opponents have engineered a league-high 31 drives of five minutes or longer and put together 32 10-play drives, tied for second most in the league. Only 23 times have opposing offenses gone three and out against Indianapolis, fewest in the league.
The matchup of Larry Johnson, who set a league record with 416 carries in the regular season, against the NFL's worst run defense suggests that Manning will spend a lot of time on the sideline Saturday. Perhaps he'll get antsy again. Whether he takes that attitude with him onto the field and presses the issue will have a lot to do with whether the Colts find themselves waiting another year to capture that elusive title.
The underdog Chiefs hope Manning will find that it is more difficult to be patient when there's a possibility there won't be a next week than in, say, Week 8. To avoid that, the Colts' offense must play the same game that got it here. Manning seems to understand this.
"Your goal as an offense is to try to score every time you're out there on the field," said Manning, who has attempted 134 consecutive passes without an interception, a career high. "You realize that's not going to happen, but that's what you want to do. Sometimes this whole theme of, 'Hey, we have to get the lead,' or 'We have to get off to a fast start,' I think you have to be careful because if that doesn't happen, it really shouldn't be the end of the world."
Michael Smith is a senior writer at ESPN.com.