NEW ORLEANS — Peyton Manning was perfect in “The Big Easy.”
Unless, of course, you asked him.
“Well, I overthrew Dallas Clark on that one,” the Indianapolis Colts quarterback said after throwing six touchdown passes in a 55-21 primetime rout of the Saints in New Orleans, Manning’s hometown, on Sept. 28, 2003.
One TD pass shy of tying an NFL single-game record, Manning overshot Clark on an incomplete third-quarter pass to the end zone. There was also another near-miss just beyond the reach of wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
Ho-hum. Manning had to settle for a perfect 158.3 passer rating, completing 20-of-25 passes for 314 yards, and calling it a night with 4 seconds remaining in the third quarter after throwing an 11-yard TD pass to Clark for a 48-13 lead. The touchdown was Clark’s first in the NFL, not that many remembered.
“Your first touchdown, you want it to be meaningful, you want to be something that changes a game or a game-winning touchdown, but mine was one of the six he threw at New Orleans down in the Superdome,” Clark said years later. “Mine, I think, was the sixth one. You almost kind of felt bad for ’em, like shouldn’t we just run it out?
“I caught my first NFL touchdown and there’s probably 10 people in the stands and the networks should have switched the game to some reality show so nobody would see it. My family would have to go on the Internet to find out, like it wasn’t on TV anymore.”
The Colts had never scored more in a road game. And they put up 55 without the services of running back Edgerrin James, who sat out with a back injury.
“Peyton was ballin’, man,” James said the next day.
Manning starred at Isidore Newman High School back in the day. This night, he flung it around as if he were taking apart a prep team. Half of Harrison’s six catches were for touchdowns as he finished with 158 yards receiving.
Before the Saints could blink, Manning connected with Ricky Williams on a 17-yard TD pass in a 93-second scoring drive. TD passes of 13 and 79 yards to Harrison made it 21-0.
“Once we got the momentum,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said, “it was like a shark in the water.”
And the biggest fish, Manning, sure was hungry at home.
Manning’s last three touchdown passes came in his final quarter of work. Running back Dominic Rhodes caught a 12-yarder and Harrison reached the end zone from 32 yards out before Clark capped the visitors’ 24-point third quarter. Defensive end Dwight Freeney scooped up a fumble and ran 19 yards for the Colts’ final score early in the fourth.
“Everything worked,” said Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore. “I can’t explain it.”
Manning’s early exit snapped a string of 1,633 consecutive snaps. The perfect passer rating of 158.3 was the NFL-record third of his 84-game, regular-season career. He added a fourth in 2004, setting another record that has since been matched by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
A year later, Manning had another six-TD game on Thanksgiving in Detroit, but completing 23 of 28 passes for 236 yards with six scores in a 41-9 rout of the Lions translated to a passer rating of 141.4. Not perfect. Go figure.
“Every now and then,” Manning said in an understatement after marching all over the Saints, “you’re going to have a night that belongs to one team.”
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is email@example.com.)