There comes a time in every game--it can be a moment that defines a season--when a play just has to be made. "My dad [Archie] used to call it, 'Refuse to lose,'" Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said on Sunday, about an hour after he was in one of those situations at The Coliseum in Nashville. "I just said to myself, I've got to do something right now."
The scene: Tennessee 17, Indianapolis 17 ... 10:53 to play in a game the Colts had to win to keep from falling two games behind the Titans in the AFC South ... second-and-20 at the Indy 10 after Manning had been sacked on a flea-flicker call that had fooled no one ... the biggest crowd in The Coliseum's history (68,932) at a fever pitch, and so, too, the Tennessee defense. The Colts called for maximum protection, sending only two men out (wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne), both running sideline routes. Manning got protection and looked to Wayne, who had cut off his route at 17 yards, a corner in front of him and a safety behind. Manning zipped the ball into Wayne's gut. The crowd went silent. "It was chaotic, but for some reason the game slowed down for me," said Manning.
From there Manning hooked up with Harrison for six yards and a first down. Two plays later he rainbowed a 34-yard pass down the right sideline to Harrison, who was blanketed by one of football's best cover corners, Samari Rolle. "Not to pat myself on the back, but Samari had perfect coverage on the play," said Manning, who completed the 11-play, 80-yard drive by handing off to Edgerrin James for a four-yard touchdown run.
This could have been the day that there was a changing of the guard in a very good AFC South. The new-look Titans, who got 152 rushing yards from second-year back Chris Brown (the successor to Eddie George), had their way for much of the first two quarters against defending division champion Indianapolis but led only 10--3 at intermission. The magnitude of the situation wasn't lost on Manning. "Nobody said anything about it," he said, "but going 0--2 with Tennessee 2--0 would have been bad. Very bad." Then in the second half the Colts' Triplets--Manning, Harrison and James--simply refused to lose.
As great as he can be, Manning still makes bad decisions at bad times. In a 27--24 season-opening loss to the Patriots, he threw a careless interception in the red zone early and took a 12-yard sack on the team's last series of the game, leaving Mike Vanderjagt with a 48-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right. But it is performances like the one he had on Sunday that make Manning watchers believe they are seeing the Unitas of his generation. The 17-yard strike to Wayne and the 34-yarder to Harrison were pinpoint throws. And just when you think kids such as Brown and defensive ends Carlos Hall and Antwan Odom are going to take control of the division, Manning directs four second-half touchdown drives as Harrison catches six passes for 69 yards, and James runs for 72 yards and two touchdowns in the last 8:39.
After the media had left his locker, Manning wondered what his offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, would say in Monday's unit meeting. "Tom's going to look at the tape with us," Manning said, "and he's going to say, 'Players making plays.' That's all." And that's why the Colts didn't enter Week 3 in a big hole.
Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, every week at si.com/football.