By Mary Paoletti
Peyton Manning is good at being humble.
Considering the avalanche of accolades and attention the Colts quarterback is up against, it's nice to hear.
All those MVP awards? No big deal. It's about the greater good. "I've always accepted those on behalf of my teammates and coaches throughout my career,'' he said on Wednesday.
And how about the Oreo, DirecTV, and SportsCenter commercials? "The one thing -- let me make it very clear -- I am a football player,'' Manning stated. "I am not, nor have I ever considered myself to be, an actor. I'm a football player, that's what I want to be. So let's make that real clear so there's no confusion about that."
Nobody is actually confused.
Indianapolis is one of the winningest organizations since 1999 -- its 10 playoff appearances being the NFL's best-- and Peyton Manning has a lot to do with that. In that success is a turnaround against the Patriots. The last seven meetings between the two teams has yielded just two losses for the Colts. But when Peyton was baited into admitting to a solid grasp of Bill Belichick's schemes, the QB wouldn't bite.
"I don't think I have a handle on any defenses. Every game just kind of takes on its own identity and certainly, if you ask about a certain year, there have been certain times when our offense has executed better than in years past, but it's really hard to summarize or all put them into one. I've never admitted to having a handle on anything.''
It was a safe statement to make even if the statistics show otherwise. His "past is the past" attitude might be more appropriate this year than in others, though. Indianapolis has taken serious hits to the 2010 roster because of injuries. In particular, Manning's offensive arsenal has been limited with missed time from running backs Joseph Addai and Mike Hart, wideouts Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez (relegated to IR) and of course, tight end Dallas Clark (also on IR).
No part of the regrouping has been easy. But missing that last guy on the list has been particularly hard for Manning.
"We're still dealing with it, it's a week-to-week transition,'' he said. "Out of respect for Dallas, I'm not sure if you replace Dallas Clark, you just adjust. I think Dallas is that good of a player and deserves that big of respect.''
This in mind, Manning sees going into New England as a major challenge. But quarterbacks say that about every team they're about to face, right? Sure. It's different for Indianapolis, though. Manning said that compensating for a mix-and-match roster every week makes regular game-planning trickier.
"It definitely has been a different type of season because of the abnormal amount of injuries and different guys playing,'' he said. "Every week presents a new challenge and we're sort of trying to form the identity of our team that week depending on who's playing. That's why it's a great challenge in a week like this because you have to do certain things just to take care of the Colts, then you also have to get ready for the Patriots."
It's sort of a double whammy there and it is a tremendous challenge to get ready for such a good opponent at the same time you're working on trying to get on the same page with some of the new guys. It's a challenge from a preparation standpoint but you have to get it done.''
That's why having a quarterback like Manning at the helm has been crucial for the Colts. With the way he talks about their struggles you wouldn't think that Indy's 6-3. But check out the stats. Manning has 2,663 passing yards for third-highest total in the NFL. Not bad when your targets look different from week to week.
Of course, things look different for the Patriots, too.
Manning knows it. He talked about how the landscape changes, particularly for him, when the field is scanned and no Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel or Rodney Harrison show up. If you think he's not worried though, you're crazy. In Manning's mind, Bill Belichick is more than enough to compensate for any struggles the Patriots youth movement might have. However ambiguous his title might be.
"You can tell he's got the young guys caught up to speed real quickly,'' the QB said. "They really have some young, outstanding players that have developed in a short period of time. It's always a challenge playing against . . . I've always just kind of called them 'his defenses' even though he wasn't always the coordinator. I guess maybe he does have the title of coordinator now, I'm not even sure. He seems to be calling most of the defenses.''
In particular, the return of Patrick Chung hasn't escaped anyone in Indianapolis. Manning has studied up on all the Patriots safeties and he lists Chung as someone who could give the Colts trouble.
"He's a guy that can move around a lot. He can cover a slot receiver in nickel defenses, he can cover a slot receiver one-on-one, he can cover tight ends, he can play the deep half as a safety. He's very versatile. He's got excellent speed, big play capabilities, and it just seems like he has a real knack for the football.''
But New England, be wary.
Even when those sub-200 games happen to the best passers, as they did to Manning on Sunday against the Bengals (a season low 185-yards, zero touchdowns), the best teams will pick it up on the other side. And that's exactly what happened last weekend. When the Colts offense got stagnant in the second half, the 'D' forced five turnovers to help secure the 23-17 victory.
"It's a team game, it takes a team effort. That's just been happening a lot this year; defense has been picking up the offense, offense has been picking up the defense,'' Manning said. "We're still hoping each week that both sides of the ball play their best game of the year at the same time. That's what you always want.
"But there's no question that our defense did a great job Sunday against the Bengals, causing turnovers, forcing Cincinnati into mistakes and giving our offense great field position. They were outstanding on Sunday. And they're certainly in for a tougher challenge this Sunday.''
His humility might be refreshing but don't let it fool you: You can't sleep on the Colts.