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INDIANAPOLIS – For 10 minutes, Peyton Manning(notes) disappeared into his conversation, displaying his obsessive-compulsive best. Eli Manning(notes) had seen this routine for years from his brother, so he knew what was coming. While Peyton's teammates shared a few moments of celebration in the locker room and headed to the exits in overdrive, they passed by as Peyton was making a flurry of hand gestures to Eli. He was engrossed. Routes. Protections. Alignments.
It was barely 30 minutes after the Indianapolis Colts' 30-17 AFC championship win over the New York Jets, and Peyton Manning was wrapped in a towel, delivering impromptu film review. His brother fed the beast, nodding and asking questions. And while the Colts' young wideouts – Austin Collie(notes) and Pierre Garcon(notes) – were off in their respective corner of the locker room, this kind of conversation had everything to do with them. Because as much as their 18 catches, 274 yards and two touchdowns spoke to their skill on Sunday, their ability to withstand the fatigue unleashed by Peyton Manning's brain might be their chief asset.
"Receivers have to have the stamina to keep up with him," Eli Manning said. "His mind never stops. He'll always be working to make something better, no matter how small it is."
Much has been made about Garcon's speed and Collie's hands, and how snugly they fit into the Indianapolis system, but their rise is as much an act of sheer will than anything else. It's the will to listen to Manning and run a parallel line to his work ethic, and the smarts to earn his trust. That ability, as much as wideout Reggie Wayne's(notes) consistent brilliance and Dallas Clark's(notes) polished reliability, has made the Colts offense arguably more devastating than at any other time in Manning's career. To the point that Manning can take an early barrage from the NFL's No. 1 defense, falling behind 17-6 on Sunday, then make adjustments and outscore the Jets 24-0 the rest of the way.
And that run was built on the young receivers, with Garcon and Collie putting up 179 receiving yards and both touchdowns after the Jets had taken the 11-point lead. As much emphasis is placed on Manning and the Colts' defensive adjustments, one needs to only remember how this offense functioned a year ago, relying on the decaying skill of Marvin Harrison(notes) and the sometimes uncertain hands of Anthony Gonzalez(notes). At best, the group was slower, more inconsistent and certainly lacking in big-play ability – three traits Garcon and Collie wiped out after Harrison was released in the offseason and Gonzalez was lost for 2009 after suffering ligament damage in his right knee in the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Almost five months ago, it looked like impending disaster. But with a Super Bowl berth in hand, it might have been the best thing that happened to the franchise.
"Prognostications don't mean much to us," general manager Bill Polian said. "I said, 'We've got the guys to win' and [Colts coach Jim Caldwell] said the same thing. We knew Pierre was going to [blossom]. We didn't know he was going to have the kind of day he did [Sunday] under these kinds of conditions, but we knew he was going to be a good player. And we were pretty well convinced that Austin would be a good player. While everybody else was saying, 'Well, they have no receivers,' we felt we had receivers."
Not only receivers, but a newfound flexibility – and perhaps a rejuvenated work ethic – that has helped the Colts flourish. Garcon's speed can be devastating from both the slot and outside, while Collie's hands and ability to run precise routes make him a threat from almost anywhere he lines up. And after a daunting start, when both were thrust into more playing time than expected with Gonzalez's injury, both have managed to earn Manning's trust.
That's as paramount as anything for a player like Manning, whose ability to collect, analyze and utilize information could make him a world-class intelligence agent, if not for the quarterback gig. Both Garcon and Collie have learned that over the course of the season, as Manning has continually sought out each and every nugget on the sidelines between series. Garcon said he realized the value of it in Week 3, when Manning quizzed him about how the Arizona Cardinals' cornerbacks had been playing him. Garcon said he thought they were guessing on some routes, and Manning used that to turn a pump fake into a 53-yard touchdown.
Collie, on the other hand, told Manning he believed he was getting a step on the Jets' safeties in deeper routes, leading to Collie's three-catch, 80-yard, one-man drive in the second quarter. Collie's 16-yard touchdown on that drive pulled the Colts to 17-13 and drastically shifted the game's momentum. But it wasn't a Collie adjustment – it was Manning processing what his wideout had shared on the sideline.
"I just do what I'm told," Collie said. "I'm not in charge of the adjustments or seeing what we need to be doing. Peyton relays that to us."
And Collie and Garcon delivered, allowing the Jets to essentially erase Reggie Wayne (three catches, 55 yards) with Darrelle Revis(notes), as well as shading some of their coverages to Dallas Clark. The result was the Colts' young tandem proving what Polian had been saying all offseason – that Indianapolis had the talent to be explosive, and that talent would get its opportunity regardless of what the naysayers said.
"I think [the success] speaks to the individual, and kind of how they respond," Manning said. "You just never know how certain guys are going to react. Guys can look great in practice, but when the lights come on, you just don't know. It kind of has to happen before you know how they respond. They have proven to be pretty calm and collected all season for us.
"You can't go away from a guy in these type of games because he's a young player. You can't protect him. You have to let them go play."
The Colts did just that, and five months later, they're poised to seize Manning's second Super Bowl trophy because of it.
- Peyton Manning