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An Underappreciated Iron Man Proves His Mettle

By Les Carpenter
Monday, October 23, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS

He dressed slowly this time, meticulously pulling on tan corduroys, checked shirt and a tweed jacket with the little Colts pin already attached to the lapel. Then Peyton Manning picked up a towel and wiped the NFL's most famous face before letting out a long, deep sigh.

This time wasn't like the others, he said. On other Sundays, he has been able to deflect the biggest hits, dodge the screaming linebackers diving headlong for his knees. This dexterity and a dependable offensive line have allowed him to never miss a start, to take every snap in 112 of 134 games in his career, a remarkable string for anyone let alone a quarterback who wears tweed and knows enough about product placement to casually drop the name of the sports drink he endorses into his postgame news conference.

Then came the forearm of Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels crashing down on his helmet in the second quarter, and his knees buckled, his helmet snapped off and for a moment his world suddenly grew very dark.

"It was a little different," he said.

Different how?

"The guy wouldn't let go of my helmet," Manning replied. "I looked into my helmet to see if my head was in there."

He did not smile as he said this. This might have been a joke, but it was not playful banter. Still, the face of seemingly every 120-second television break between possessions was also composed enough not to snarl at the cameras on the day he added mightily to his ever-growing legacy.

His statistical line was as glittering as on so many other weekends -- 342 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 140.4. But it was in the third quarter, after halftime had given him time to clear his head from the hit, when he won this game with three touchdowns and 138 yards. On those three possessions he was brilliant.

As Washington cornerback Shawn Springs -- beaten on one of those throws, a 38-yard pass to Marvin Harrison down the right sideline -- later said sitting before his locker, "He doesn't get mad, he just makes great throws."

Maybe this was the next step for Manning. Despite setting passing records almost annually, he has a reputation for softness, a tendency to collapse in the biggest games. And quite frankly, Manning hasn't been hit too many times, certainly not as hard as he was yesterday.

His coach, Tony Dungy, smirked a little as he said, "He's a little tougher than people give him credit for being," before adding, "We don't like to find out how tough he is."

But Daniels's hit might have been about the toughest he has absorbed, especially combined with the blow Andre Carter landed toward his ankles. For a moment, Manning seemed unsure what to do. He rolled around and pulled up from the turf with little flecks of the crushed rubber undersurface stuck to his forehead. The official told him he would have to come out of the game if an injury timeout was needed. Through the fog, Manning knew he did not want that. He has missed only one snap to injury in his career and that was in 2001. He would not come out. So he called the timeout.

Many years ago, in his first season, he did the same thing after the other biggest hit he ever took -- one by Baltimore that knocked the wind from him -- he called timeout and his coach, Jim Mora, screamed at him for wasting such a valuable chit. Yesterday, Dungy did not do this; rather, they set a play (a running play) and let Manning clear his head.

Later, after he had showered and dressed, Manning seemed most irritated at the taking of the timeout.

He did not attack the Redskins; neither did Dungy. The coach said he did not think Daniels's shot was malicious, though the team's defensive tackle, Raheem Brock, later scrunched his face at the question and said, "Yeah, it was a dirty hit." The Colts were stunned it didn't draw a personal foul penalty, especially after one had been called on Indianapolis's Dwight Freeney earlier in the game.

Manning said an official -- he didn't identify which one -- apologized and said he should have thrown a flag but he had been watching the pass Manning threw, not the shot that came afterward.

After it was all over, Manning grew coy when questioned about his mental state in the moments after the blow. He smiled and said, "I come from the Bill Belichick school of injuries," implying his thoughts then would remain a secret. "You're not going to get much out of me on that."

This was a joke. And the famous face smiled a little at his humor. But there was no reason to take a low road, to deliver ultimatums to a team the Colts won't see again this year. Yes, he took a hit, a big hit, but why belabor the obvious. The shot had only made him better, tightening the spirals on his passes, making him believe he could heave a pass 51 yards down the field and place it in exactly the perfect spot, just over wide receiver Reggie Wayne's left shoulder, out of the reach of two pursuing Redskins, and maybe the most beautiful touchdown pass anyone has thrown all year.

Yesterday he took the hardest hit Washington had to give him, and then he made the Redskins pay.

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