As Colts Tops Titans, Manning Quiets Naysayers

By CBSSports.com senior writer Pete Prisco

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had never thrown three interceptions in three consecutive games in his career before last Sunday.

But instead of pouting, or trying to drown his frustration in a bunch of cold beers, Manning did something else that night he had never done before in his career:

He went to the team facility and watched tape.

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You would expect that from him, right? He sat down and watched four games of the Tennessee Titans.

"Just to get a head-start," Manning said. "It's the first time for that."

It might not be the last. Manning broke out of his three-game slump to light up the Titans Thursday night in the Colts' 30-28 victory at LP Field. Manning completed 25 of 35 passes for 319 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

That comes on the heels of his throwing 11 interceptions in the past three games - all losses by the Colts - leading to a burn hotter than any rubber from the tires on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.

The Titans' defensive players could have late-hit Manning 20 times Thursday night, attacked both his head and his knees with fine-worthy hits, and it still wouldn't have come close to the beating he's taken since Sunday.

If he was bothered by it, he sure didn't seem like it. When Colts veteran assistant coach Tom Moore came to him earlier this week and told him to hang in there, Manning was perplexed.

"Hang in there for what?" he said. "I didn't know what people were saying."

Manning is harder on himself than any media member or fan, which is why you knew he would right the thing. The victory Thursday night puts the Colts at 7-6, a half-game behind the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC South. They play the Jaguars next week in Indianapolis. If the Colts win out, they will win the division. It's that simple.

It seems like it might have been a case of premature emasculation aimed at both Manning and the Colts.

"We didn't pay any attention to that stuff," Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. "We know if we win out we're in the playoffs. That's all that matters."

If they're to get there, it will be (as it has been for the past decade) on Manning's right arm. The Colts are banged up on both sides of the ball, more so than any team in the league. They were without three starters in the secondary against the Titans. They were again without their top runner (Joseph Addai) and three of Manning's projected top receivers when the season started, including tight end Dallas Clark.

Half the time, you had to look up to see who's making plays on both sides of the ball by the anonymous many. The Colts have 14 rookies on their roster. That's incredible for a team that went to the Super Bowl last season.

That's why Manning had been pressing so much. But against the Titans he looked calm, like his old self. He threw touchdown passes of a yard and 19 yards to Pierre Garcon. He also hit Garcon on a big 43-yard pass play late in the game when the Titans had rallied from down 21-0 to cut the Colts lead to 27-21. That completion set up a 47-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri to ice the game.

"He [Manning] led our team to a great victory today," Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said.

Not bad after spending three days as the league's pinata. The critics crawled out from under rocks and seemingly everywhere to take their shots.

"People who praise him all the time, as soon it's a struggle they unleash on him," Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "I'm sure it will be how great he was all week."

Manning, aside from taking the blame, didn't flinch. His teammates said they noticed nothing different about him. He took it and moved on.

"When you get a chance to criticize the guy at the top, the guy who is the best quarterback in the league, everyone wants to take their shot," Saturday said. "He was above it. He said it was on him. He's solid as a rock. He isn't going to stop throwing. There's no backing down in him even when it's not going great."

The line of rippers seemed to stretch from Indianapolis to the Florida Keys. Network analysts spent shows breaking down his game. Sports talk shows filled the lines with callers questioning whether Manning was done or not.

Here's a message for every Chuck in Paducah calling those shows: He is far from done.

"Man that guy doesn't get frazzled," one Colts player said. "Some other players might be bothered by all the stuff being said. Peyton just works to change it. That's why he is who he is."

The Colts are last in the NFL in rushing for the second consecutive season, and that has put even more of a burden on Manning. They did run the ball for 87 yards on 32 carries against the Titans, the second-highest total of rushes in a game this season and the highest yardage total in six games.

For all his struggles this season, Manning is now the first passer in the league to go over 4,000 yards. He now has 4,028 yards, his fifth consecutive season over 4,000 yards and his 11th season over 4,000 in his career.

Manning also has 26 touchdown passes this season. The only player with more is New England's Tom Brady with 27, although others can catch or pass Manning this weekend.

"He is human, like everyone else," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said of Manning. "We knew he would turn it around."

Why would anybody have doubted that? He was simply on a bad run, like Joe DiMaggio going hitless in three games or Kobe Bryant going under 20 for three games. The greatness is still there.

Thanks to him, the Colts snapped a three-game losing streak and they head to the big division game with the Jaguars next week with a little more pep in their step.

As Manning made his way through the locker room late Thursday, laughing with some of his offensive linemen, you could tell he felt a sense of relief. The Colts are alive. He seemed right again.

Can a three-game slump really have meant the end, the way some said? Not when it's this guy.

Spending hours watching four Titans tapes on a Sunday night when a good St. Elmo's steak was calling his name is the reason why he's still the best and why his team is alive, much to the chagrin of other AFC teams who wish that No. 18 would just go away.

For more from Pete Prisco, check him out on Twitter: @PriscoCBS
By CBSSports.com Senior Writer Pete Prisco

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