The Indianapolis Colts had their bye week just before Halloween, and Peyton Manning took the opportunity to visit his brother, Eli. He watched Eli quarterback the New York Giants to a win over the Washington Redskins at Giants Stadium, then dressed as Elvis when the two attended a costume party.
"It was really one of the more enjoyable nights I've had," Peyton Manning said last week. "Nobody recognized me. Well, they recognized me, but they recognized me as Elvis. I'm going to have to bring that back to Indianapolis. Of course, I just blew my secret."
That's not the only Manning-related secret that has gotten out in recent weeks.
There are others, like this one: The Colts are about more than their record-setting quarterback this season.
Last season, Manning threw for 4,557 yards and set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes, but again was watching the Super Bowl in February instead of playing in it. This season, Manning is on pace to pass for 30 touchdowns and more than 3,800 yards. That's not bad, but it's a far cry from last season. The Colts are the league's only unbeaten team, however, and the quarterback isn't complaining.
The Colts are 9-0 with Sunday's no-sweat triumph over the Houston Texans, six days after they won a highly anticipated Monday night game against the New England Patriots for Manning's first victory in Foxborough, Mass. The conjecture about their chances of joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who had the only undefeated season in NFL history, has begun.
Big tests come in the Colts' next two games, at Cincinnati on Sunday and eight days later against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Indianapolis in a Monday night game. But this much already is clear: The Colts have supplanted the Patriots, winners of three of the last four Super Bowls, as the team to beat league-wide, and the rest of this NFL season will be about whether Manning can reach his first Super Bowl in his eighth pro season.
"They beat us pretty bad," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said after his club's 40-21 loss to the Colts. "They're a good team, and they're playing their best football. I don't think they're doing anything different. Why change anything when you have a good team like that?"
But these Colts are different. They have become a more balanced club, with a greatly improved defense and an offense capable of stringing together sustained drives. Manning says he regularly is changing passing plays to running plays with audibles at the line of scrimmage, as he did on both of the Colts' rushing touchdowns against the Patriots.
"I think people are surprised," Manning said. "People are going, 'Oh, Peyton, you've got to be frustrated with all these running plays.' I'm calling a lot of them myself. [Offensive coordinator] Tom Moore is calling a lot of pass plays, and I'm checking to the runs. The fantasy football players don't like to hear that, but that was the best play in that situation. . . . As long as we get in that end zone and win the games, I'm as happy as I am throwing touchdowns."
Tailback Edgerrin James is on course to run for 1,826 yards, which would be 278 more than last season. Wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley are on pace to combine for 2,846 receiving yards and 21 touchdown catches, that after totaling 3,400 yards and 37 touchdowns last season.
Manning calls himself an "old-school" quarterback who gets a thrill out of outfoxing the opposing defensive coordinator, middle linebacker or safety by making the proper audible for a six-yard run. He said that defenses have resolved not to give up long passing plays to the Colts, so he and his offensive teammates merely are taking what opponents are giving them.
"I think they're kind of surprised that we can play that game," he said. "I think they say, 'Hey, there's no way the Colts can be patient if they have to go down the field [methodically].' When we do that, I think it does kind of drain them a little bit. . . . We feel we can play any kind of game that we have to."
Manning said he occasionally has to remind himself on the field to stay patient and not allow the Colts to revert to their old quick-strike offensive mentality. But late in the New England game, with a chance to put the contest out of reach, he did change a prescribed running play to a passing play. The result was a 30-yard touchdown pass to Harrison. "I kind of got tired of handing off," Manning said. "But I'm doing pretty good for the most part."
The defensive shortcomings that have been perhaps the biggest factor keeping Manning from the Super Bowl appear gone. The Colts rank fourth in the NFL in total defense. The signing of defensive tackle Corey Simon just before the season, after the Philadelphia Eagles made him a free agent by rescinding the franchise-player tag they had placed on him, has bolstered the run defense, and ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney have combined for 16 sacks.
"I think we are more of a team," Manning said. "We really kind of feed off each other. We've got a lot of youth and enthusiasm on defense. Practices are kind of exciting. Guys are flying around. It is a little bit of a different feeling. . . . I sleep a little better at night now knowing that Dwight can go out and get a sack at any time. [Safety] Bob Sanders can make a huge, big hit for a fumble. You think those plays are going to happen now. It used to be you were watching, you were hoping [the opposing offense would] make a mistake. Now you're kind of surprised if Freeney doesn't get a sack.
"It's nice to have that offense-defense camaraderie. It's definitely the best camaraderie we've had in terms of both sides pulling for each other and feeding off of one another since I've been here the last eight years."
The Colts have two more games in which they will be the overwhelming favorite and both are home. They play the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 4 and the Arizona Cardinals on Jan. 1 in their regular season finale. After they face the Bengals and Steelers, the Colts will have three taxing games remaining -- road contests at Jacksonville on Dec. 11 and Seattle on Dec. 24, sandwiched around a home matchup with the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 18.
Coach Tony Dungy wasted no time after the New England win cautioning his players about the perils of thinking about 16-0. "We're a good team, and we're good when we play our game," Dungy said. "We're fortunate we have some good veteran leadership, and the guys practice well and play hard. But that's what we've got to continue to do. You don't win championships in September or October. You don't win them in Week 8. You don't win them with one game."
Dungy played down the significance of beating the Patriots, who had won the teams' previous six meetings and eliminated the Colts from the playoffs the last two seasons. He reminded his players that the Steelers beat the Patriots in the regular season last year but lost to them in the AFC title game. "It's a game in the middle of the year that we wanted to win, and we got the win," Dungy said.
Manning and many of his teammates agreed. Manning, who'd had an 0-7 career record in Foxborough, conceded the victory was satisfying, but added: "You try to keep it in perspective. We have bigger goals we want to accomplish."