INDIANAPOLIS — Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne have seen Peyton Manning’s high-flying act.
As longtime teammates, they played a part in Manning’s gaudy stats, record-breaking quests and even the distracting pursuits of perfection.
This week, as outsiders, they will put all that inside knowledge to use as Andrew Luck and the Colts try to derail Manning and the unbeaten Broncos.
“You’ve got try to rattle him as much as you can,” Mathis said.
It’s never been easy for a veteran team like the Patriots to do, and it won’t be any simpler for Luck’s young Colts (4-2), who have never been through a week quite like this.
Manning’s return to Indy has been hyped 24
7, helped along by Denver coach John Fox’s criticism and the ensuing media outcry over comments made by Colts owner Jim Irsay — comments that were virtually identical to what he had been saying for months. There has been curiosity over how long and exactly what the Colts will do to honor Manning during pregame festivities. And, of course, everyone wants to know what will be going through Manning’s masterful mind as he suits up in Lucas Oil Stadium’s visiting locker room for the first time.
“For me to predict, I just can’t give you an answer,” Manning said, a tactful attempt to deflect attention from himself. “I guess I’ll know a little more after the game.”
What Wayne and Mathis know better than most is how good Manning can be.
Nobody has thrown more touchdown passes through six games (22) and no quarterback since 1950 has produced more double-digit winning streaks. Manning has officially done it five times, six when counting the four-game playoff run that led to his only Super Bowl title, a string the league does not count.
Denver’s 17-game winning streak is tied for the fourth longest in NFL history.
Not long ago, Manning was doing all this in Indy.
Colts fans remember his record-breaking 2004 season with 49 TD passes, and Mathis and Wayne played key roles in Indy’s league-record 23-game winning streak led by Manning in 2008-09. They were also around for the 13-0 start in 2005 when Indy’s average winning margin was 16.3 points.
It’s different this time.
Manning’s Broncos (6-0) are on pace to shatter the NFL’s single-season scoring record and, fair or not, many will watch Sunday night’s game to see whether Luck can live up to the standards Manning established.
But if Mathis and Wayne learned anything from Manning, it’s this: forget the sideshows.
“It’s a big game to us just because every game is a big game. We’re coming off a loss. We really feel like we didn’t display our talents the way we should have last week,” Wayne said. “We get another opportunity to change that over, to kind of change some thoughts in people’s minds. ... I’m just ready to play.”
Here are five things to watch Sunday night:
HEAD GAMES: Manning’s ability to call plays at the line of scrimmage is second to none. Wayne, Mathis and Antoine Bethea saw Manning do it in practice and on games days for nearly a decade. Colts coach Chuck Pagano plans to take advantage of that expertise this weekend, but it’s unclear how much it will help. Wayne told reporters this week that his insights would be irrelevant because Manning would “change it anyway.” But watching the mind games between Manning and his ex-teammates should be one of the night’s more intriguing matchups.
NO. 1 vs. NO. 1: The Luck-Manning showdown will be the feature attraction of Week 7, and with good reason. This is the first time in the common draft era that two quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall by the same franchise played for that team and later met in a game. John Elway and Jeff George were also taken No. 1 overall by the Colts and squared off four times, but Elway was traded to Denver without ever playing for the Colts. Manning and Luck also happen be two of the league’s best.
KEEPING UP WITH THE BRONCOS: Denver’s 44.2 points per game translates into more than 700 points over the 16-game schedule. At that rate, most opponents will be forced into playing catch-up. The trick for Indy will be controlling the ball. As the Colts have repeatedly said, they want this team to be more balanced between run and pass, and the addition of Trent Richardson should help that transformation. If the Colts control the clock, they could control the game.
FINAL IMPRESSIONS: Everybody knows about Manning’s late-game heroics. But Luck has been every bit as good since coming into the league last season. His seventh fourth-quarter comebacks in 2012 set a rookie record and were tied for the most by any quarterback since 1970. Luck has produced two more fourth-quarter rallies this season, and this time he’s getting some help from the defense, which has allowed just 13 points in the fourth quarter of the first six games.
HOME, SWEET, HOME: Indy has traditionally been one of the league’s best home teams, and Luck has only added to the reputation by going 9-2 since last season. But Manning has been every bit as comfortable at Lucas Oil Stadium, which many credit him for getting the funding to build. Manning was 19-5 at the retractable-roof stadium from 2008-10, and until last season, one of the Manning quarterbacks had won in Indy every season since 1998 (Eli won the Super Bowl in Indy after the 2011 season when Peyton sat out the year).
Could it happen this weekend? Stay tuned.