Manning's Indianapolis Colts are 8-0. In those eight games, he has thrown for more than 300 yards seven times. With half the season gone, he is on pace to break Dan Marino's record for passing yardage in a season – roughly the equivalent of throwing a football to the top of Pikes Peak in 16 games.
And yet, it could be argued, the Colts have not yet played a quality team.
That ends Sunday with the latest installment of the Rivalry of the Decade against the New England Patriots.
Manning is as responsible as any single football player can be for his team's 8-0 start. The Colts enter the game against the Patriots not only undefeated, but also missing three of their four starting defensive backs, one of their starting three linebackers, their No. 2 receiver, and running the ball worse than 26 of the 31 other teams in the NFL.
In today's salary-cap NFL, where winning is the art of minimizing deficiencies, Manning is like an industrial size vat of White Out, making the Colts looks cleaner than they actually are.
Yet teams the caliber of New England – and coaches as innovative as Bill Belichick – have a way of exposing their opponents' weaknesses, leaving Manning once again in the position of the Patriots' lab rat.
It is a role to which Manning will be accustomed.
For the first half of The Rivalry, Manning led the league in despondent headshakes per game. From 2001 to 2004, the Colts lost six consecutive games to the Patriots, including two in the playoffs. Manning looked like nothing so much as a grade schooler called to the blackboard to solve fractals.
Over time, Manning has become perhaps the closest thing the football world has ever seen to Good Will Hunting in a helmet. Always a savant of game film, Manning's experience has seasoned him, adding wisdom to precociousness.
Proportionately, Manning has become the Patriots' master. In five meetings since 2005, the Colts have won four – losing only in the Patriots' perfect regular season of 2007.
Yet Sunday presents a new challenge.
Winning in the NFL often becomes a matter of adaptability – when Plan A fails, how many different ways can you beat a team?
The Colt defense has rarely been the shut-down sort, and while it has proven remarkably resilient this year (giving up the fewest points per game in the NFL), it has not faced a team remotely as dangerous as New England. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw five touchdown passes in a single quarter earlier this year.
And despite the promise of banged-up rookie running back Donald Brown, no Colt has rushed for more than 64 yards in a game this season. As is always the case in this contest, it is a test for both sides – a measuring stick to see how good each really is. In five of the past eight years, the winner of this game has gone on to the Super Bowl – winning it four times.
For Manning in particular, however, it could be a test of whether a patched-up supporting cast can step up – or whether he can again load his team onto his shoulder pads and roll to 9-0.
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