EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 30, 2008

Peyton's Plight

Struggling Manning off to a slow start

On Pro Football

Hector Longo

FOXBORO — Now, Peyton Manning tastes the stew that Tom Brady was fed here for so many years.

How strange is it that Brady's replacement Matt Cassel feasts with the best 1-2 receiver punch on the planet, while Manning's weapons wither away from week to week.

New England football fans, teased a bit by the Colts' latest implosion before a national TV audience Monday night, get a closer look Sunday night as the Pats make their first trip to the new $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

As fortunate as the Patriots have been to race to a 5-2 mark — weak schedule, missing Stephen Jackson with the Rams, facing a Chiefs team that loses a QB the same game Brady goes down — the Colts are extraordinarily lucky to be 3-4 and not 1-6.

They scored 11 points in the final 1:15 to beat the Vikings 18-15. Aided by a complete Sage Rosenfels meltdown, they scored the final 21 points in the last 4:14 to beat the Texans 31-27.

"They look as explosive as ever," said Bill Belichick, despite the fact the Colts averaged 27.1 points a game from 1999-07 and are only averaing 21.3 points a game this fall.

"There are concerns about everybody — (Dallas) Clark, (Marvin) Harrison, (Reggie) Wayne, (Anthony) Gonzalez and (Joseph) Addai. It is about team defense, you can't double everybody. You can't set your defense to stop everybody, they have too many good players."

Of course, it all starts with Manning. He's the one trying to jam the ball into a covered Harrison.

And he's the only one who can be the true difference between contender and middle-of-the-packer.

Manning has been early Eli, not vintage Peyton. He's thrown just 10 touchdown passes in seven games, a far cry from the 31.1 touchdown passes (per 16 games) he's averaged the previous nine years.

This was an offense that rewrote the record books. Now Manning looks down the field and sees nothing but covered receivers.

Manning, now 32, faces one of the great challenges in his career. Has he ever been shackled with the marginal talent at the skill positions like Brady won Super Bowls with in 2003-04?

The answer to that is, of course, no.

Should he rise to meet the challenge and carry this Colts team, depleted and dinged up as it might be, to greatness, Manning would ascend to Brady-like levels, something the competitor in him has to crave.

Of course, you wonder how healthy he is after his July surgery to remove an infected bursa sac in his left knee. He missed the entire preseason and it was revealed a few weeks ago that, similar to Brady, there were complications and he actually had a second surgery before the season.

"NFL football is really still all about November and December," said Colts coach Tony Dungy. "If you are playing well at that time of year then that is what counts. The [New York] Giants proved that last year.

"We have to really focus ourselves on improving, playing consistently and getting a win streak going. If we can get a streak like we have gotten in the past and roll off six or seven in a row, it still might not be enough to win the division but that is OK. If we can get ourselves playing well and get hot and be in that wild card race we will be in good shape."

It all starts with Manning, who now stands in territory that Brady knows all too well.

It starts at the top and that means Harrison, 36, the surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, has slowed to a crawl including a total of three catches for 23 yards in the last two games.

Harrison is a mere shadow of the receiver who has produced 126 TDs with such style and grace. Monday night, it was he and ex-Colt teammate Nick Harper in a battle that would have been stopped early if it was fought in the ring.

Wayne, according to reports out of Indy, has been receiving the Randy Moss treatment, getting assaulted off the line of scrimmage with help over the top because Harrison (23 catches, 267 yards) is such a diminished threat.

Addai hasn't been healthy, either, leaving Dominic Rhodes to head up the NFL's 32nd-rated running attack.

Even Dallas Clark, for all his heroics, cost his QB dearly on Monday night with some bad drops.

"I actually was very disappointed in my performance last week," said Clark. "I had a few — especially the ball that went through my hands for the interception (killing the Colts' comeback chances late in the game). That really was a turning point for them and it was very frustrating.

"We have played well in spurts but we really haven't played good consistent football that we need to win these games and we have to get back to it pretty quick."