The countdown is on.
With 31 touchdown passes in nine games, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning needs only 17 to tie Dan Marino's 20-year-old single-season NFL record. The first 50-touchdown-pass season in league history seems well within Manning's reach in what has been a pass-friendly season, especially since he has thrown 14 touchdown passes in the last three games.
"He's as close to a football god as there is right now. He's playing phenomenal football," said defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, whose Chicago Bears play the Colts on Sunday in Chicago "It's like 'Madden 2005.' You don't see the ball touching the ground. You just see completions everywhere and touchdowns.''
Manning, the reigning NFL co-most valuable player, is on pace to finish the season with 55 touchdown passes -- a performance that would perfectly mesh the circumstances of a great player at his best with favorable circumstances. In his seventh season at 28, Manning studies the game more closely and understands it better than anyone else, and his physical skills are at their peak.
It can't be understated, though, that the crackdown on defensive clutching-and-grabbing tactics by officials ordered in the offseason by the NFL's competition committee has made the record-threatening runs of Manning and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper possible. The directive hasn't made every quarterback and every wide receiver practically unstoppable, as some feared when the season began. But it has made the most accurate passers and the very best receivers next to impossible to defend.
"It definitely has had an effect on the passing game,'' Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, a member of the competition committee, said recently.
Manning is on pace to finish the season with 4,887 passing yards, and has a 122.7 passer rating. His single-season NFL bests are 33 passing touchdowns, 4,413 yards and a 99.0 rating.
Culpepper is on a pace to finish with 44 passing touchdowns and 4,821 passing yards, and he has a passer rating of 115.4. His single-season bests are 33 touchdowns, 3,937 yards and a 98.0 rating. In addition, Culpepper is completing 70.4 percent of his passes and is on course to finish with 402 completions, up from his bests of 65 percent and 333 completions.
Neither Manning nor Culpepper currently is on pace to break Marino's single-season NFL record of 5,084 passing yards -- set, like his touchdowns record, for the Miami Dolphins in 1984. But either could threaten that record with a few monstrous games, and Culpepper could threaten the single-season league marks of 418 completions (by Rich Gannon for the Oakland Raiders in 2002) and a 70.55 percent completion rate (by Ken Anderson for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1982). Both Manning and Culpepper currently have passer ratings above the NFL's single-season best of 112.8 by Steve Young for the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.
At the other end of the pass, Philadelphia Eagles wideout Terrell Owens has a shot at Jerry Rice's record for touchdown catches in a season -- 22 for the 49ers in 1987.
Owens has 12 touchdown receptions in the Eagles' nine games, putting him on pace to finish with 21 for the season.
NFL Notes: Carolina Panthers tailback Stephen Davis underwent microfracture surgery this week on his ailing right knee. Many NFL players -- including Marino, career sacks leader Bruce Smith and defensive back Rod Woodson -- resumed their careers after the procedure, in which surgeons drill holes into the kneecap.
But Davis, who turns 31 in March, is at an age at which most running backs are on the downside of their careers, and neither he nor the Panthers have any way of knowing how productive he will be when he attempts to return next season. The Panthers placed him on the injured reserve list last weekend after he played in only two games this season and rushed for 92 yards.