Downstairs in Peyton Manning's house, where the world's hottest quarterback regularly hosts parties for teammates after Indianapolis Colts home games, it's tough to take two steps without stumbling upon an exceptionally cool memento. Near the bar there's the large wicker basket overflowing with game balls; the Caddyshack poster signed by the film's stars is in the home theater (used exclusively, alas, for watching game video); and in the weight room, a wall is lined with framed photographs of the proprietor schmoozing with some of football's most recognizable faces. ¬∂ "It's my Quarterback Wall," Manning proudly explained last Friday afternoon as he surveyed a cast of majestic passers that includes Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre and Michael Vick. Then, pointing to a shot of his father, Archie, the longtime New Orleans Saint, standing next to a young, excessively tan and bushy-haired Dan Marino in a Miami Dolphins uniform, Peyton lowered his voice to a reverential tone and added, "This one right here's my favorite. My dad, of course, was my idol, but when he retired in 1984, I needed a new favorite player, and Marino kind of took over." The photo was snapped hours before a 1986 game between the Dolphins and the Saints at the Superdome when Archie, then a radio broadcaster for the home team, walked onto the field with his second-oldest son to say hello to Dan the Man. Peyton, who was 10, remembers everything about the interaction, most notably the "big ol' Skoal can Marino was holding."
Now chew on this: No NFL passer, not even the great Marino, has had as productive a season as Manning's magical 2004 campaign seems destined to turn out (box, page 52). On Sunday at Reliant Stadium, Manning threw a pair of first-quarter touchdown passes to lead Indianapolis to a 23-14 victory over the Houston Texans, giving him 46 for the year--two shy of the single-season record Marino set two decades ago. With their sixth consecutive victory the Colts (10-3) clinched a second straight AFC South title, meaning the most suspenseful storyline heading into their home game against the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday night is if and when one of football's most hallowed milestones will be surpassed.
Or matched. "I'm telling you, it would be kind of neat to tie it," said Manning, who completed 26 of 33 passes for 298 yards against the Texans (5-8). "People don't understand the respect I have for Marino. But I think if I got to 48 and shut it down, our receivers would be out there changing plays for me."
You can bet that the ball Manning tosses for TD number 49 will be displayed more prominently than those in the wicker basket. Of course, first there is the small matter of retrieving it from whoever makes the historic catch. "We've been talking about selling it on eBay," running back Edgerrin James said last Thursday night while dining with four teammates at a downtown Indianapolis restaurant. "I'll tell you this--if he's at 48 and I get a little swing pass, I'm going in punt-return mode and taking that thing to the crib."
"If it's me," wideout Reggie Wayne chimed in, "I'm gonna drift all the way across the field and put my hand up, like P-Dub [Peter Warrick] used to do at Florida State, and then be gone."
These are giddy times for the Colts, who, despite a season-low scoring output on Sunday, remain on pace to surpass the record 556 points produced by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings. Not only is Manning, at 28, playing at an uncharted level, but Indy's other skill-position players have also stepped up their games. James, in his third year removed from major knee surgery, is back to his All-Pro form--he had 104 yards on 28 carries against the Texans, giving him 1,395 for the season, and added seven catches for 54 yards. Star wideout Marvin Harrison, who last week signed a seven-year, $67 million contract extension (page 87), now gets significant help from Wayne, slot receiver Brandon Stokley and tight ends Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark.
"This is a once-in-a-career kind of situation," Colts coach Tony Dungy says. "Everything is falling into place for us--the way Peyton's playing and the weaponry we have. It's not so much the passes he's throwing as the way he's running the offense and the decisions he's making."
Sitting in the club seats outside of suite 279 at Reliant Stadium on Sunday, Colts owner Jim Irsay was equally effusive in his praise of the seventh-year veteran, whom the team drafted first overall in 1998. "Success comes from hard work and preparation, but sometimes you're blessed, and the stars seem to align," Irsay said. "I remember the last Sunday of the '97 season. Arizona was down 12 [to the Atlanta Falcons] with eight or nine minutes to go, and I was thinking, Well, it looks like we're going to have the second pick of the draft. Then they come back, and with five seconds left Jake Plummer throws a touchdown pass to win it and give us the first pick, and I just went berserk. The kids came running in saying, 'What is wrong with Dad?'"
As Irsay spoke, Manning was in the process of directing his second touchdown drive in the game's first 11 minutes, giving Indy a 14-0 lead. Twice Manning went to his first read for scores: On third-and-goal from the three the Colts lined up with an empty backfield, and Manning noticed outside linebacker Kailee Wong in single coverage against Harrison. Practically scoffing at a weakside blitz, Manning turned to his right and zipped the ball to Harrison for a 7-0 lead.
Later, on second-and-five from the Houston 12, Manning called 6 R Slant Inside and looked for the ever-improving Wayne (seven catches, 96 yards), who lined up to the left, slipped inside of rookie cornerback Dunta Robinson and flashed open while cutting across the front of the end zone. "The safety [Glenn Earl] was on the inside and was looking at Reggie," Manning said. "He was so concerned with not looking into the backfield--which happens a lot--that I was able to throw the ball right past his ear before he knew what hit him."
Like that, one of Marino's records went out the window: It was Manning's 13th consecutive game with at least two touchdown tosses, breaking an NFL mark shared by Marino, Unitas, Favre and Don Meredith. Manning worships quarterbacks in general and is especially awed by Marino because of the unmatched consistency displayed by the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. (He's on the ballot in February.) The two faced off four times before Marino retired in March 2000--Manning went 1-3--and last February in South Florida they became playing partners on the golf course. "I went down there to play in his tournament, and I wanted to hide out for a few days afterward while my contract was being worked out," Manning says. "Dan told me I could stay in his guesthouse. Some people feel you can be too old to have heroes, but I'm 28, and I don't think so."
So, while Manning was in the midst of becoming the NFL's richest man (ultimately signing a seven-year, $98 million contract extension with a record $34.5 million signing bonus), he really got in touch with his inner fan. Call it the M&M Show: Though Manning never serenaded Marino's wife, Claire, with chants of "Cut that meat," the signature line from his funny MasterCard commercial, he thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Casa Marino. The two quarterbacks played rounds of golf at elite courses, sipped vintage red wine and had a grand old time.
"My kids just loved sitting around with him talking after dinner," Marino recalls. "They're Peyton Manning fans. [Around me] he wasn't nervous or anything like that. Or if he was, I didn't notice it. He's cool."
The same can't necessarily be said about Manning's receivers in 2004. "Things are tense," James acknowledges. "When you do get the ball, you know you have to do something with it because you might not see it for a while. Somebody's going to be mad every week; it's just a question of who."
Earlier this year Harrison was frustrated by his lack of involvement, at one point voicing his displeasure to ABC's Michele Tafoya in an off-camera interview. Having caught an NFL-record 143 passes in 2002, Harrison (three catches on Sunday, 70 for the season) has seen a steady reduction in opportunities as Manning has grown more comfortable with Wayne, Stokley and Clark. "I know it's been an adjustment for Marvin," Manning said last Friday while sitting in his home office. "Hey, it's a good thing we don't huddle, because otherwise I'd hear a lot of griping from everyone." Then, gesturing to his Labradors, Manning added, "Colt and Rookie here are my two favorite receivers because they don't talk back."
The quarterback laughed, then predicted that the touchdown-pass record might not come as easily as people expect it will. "I'm telling you, it's hard to throw for a touchdown, and I have a feeling it's going to get harder," he said. "I think defenses are going to start dropping everybody into coverage in the red zone, thinking, He's not getting the record on us. And I'm telling you, if they do, I'll hand it off to Edgerrin every single play. It'll make you sick how much we'll run it if they dare us to. Heck, I'll call a quarterback draw."
After getting burned on the first two drives, Texans defensive coordinator Vic Fangio changed up coverages, mixing in man-to-man schemes behind the Texans' usual zones. "They threw a lot of junk at us," Wayne said, "and that's what we're going to get the rest of the way--junk."
It all looked good enough to Manning, who left the locker room nearly an hour after the game with a black 2004 AFC SOUTH CHAMPIONS hat on his head and a huge grin on his face. He emerged from a tunnel and slowly walked across the field with his wife, Ashley, his older brother, Cooper, and the only quarterback he worships more than Marino. It had been a bittersweet day for Archie and the Manning family--Peyton's younger brother, Eli, the New York Giants' rookie quarterback, had played miserably in a 37-14 loss to the Ravens--but this had been another memorable moment in an extraordinary season.
As Irsay, the admiring owner, had said earlier, "To do the things Peyton's been doing week in and week out, it's kind of like when a Bob Dylan comes along--you don't see someone like that very often."
Blame it on a simple twist of fate.
IN 13 GAMES this season Peyton Manning has thrown for 46 touchdowns. Here's how many games other notable quarterbacks have needed to throw their most recent 46 TD passes.
DAUNTE CULPEPPER, VIKINGS
BRETT FAVRE, PACKERS
MATT HASSELBECK, SEAHAWKS
DONOVAN MCNABB, EAGLES
JAKE PLUMMER, BRONCOS
TOM BRADY, PATRIOTS
MARC BULGER, RAMS
TRENT GREEN, CHIEFS
STEVE MCNAIR, TITANS
AARON BROOKS, SAINTS
CHAD PENNINGTON, JETS
DREW BLEDSOE, BILLS