JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) was flipping through channels two Saturdays ago when he happened upon a replay of a 1994 game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. It was the season opener and it pitted Dan Marino in his first game back from an Achilles tendon injury in 1993 against Drew Bledsoe(notes), the slinging second-year prodigy of the Patriots.
The key play in that dramatic game was a fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter for the Dolphins. Coach Don Shula called for a short pass to tight end Keith Jackson(notes). When Marino got to the line, however, he saw the Patriots in bump coverage, doing everything possible to take away the short throw.
That's when Marino audibled for a bomb to Irving Fryar for the game-winner.
It's worth mentioning that because, well, during the past two games, Manning has seemed to channel the best of Marino's daring feats in the face of the most tense situations. On Thursday night, he pulled his latest big throw, hitting wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) for a 65-yard bomb on third-and-5 with 5:33 remaining.
"Yeah, just like Dan," Manning said with a chuckle and then quoted one of Marino's favorite phrases. "Pick a guy and let it fly."
While Manning may lack some of Marino's bravado, he has all the confidence and same amount of fear. Zero. That play not only gave Indianapolis a 35-31 win over Jacksonville, it preserved the chase of a perfect season and it may have been the latest brassy credential for Manning and his bid for a fourth Most Valuable Player award.
"You have to have that confidence to make that play," Wayne said, almost shrugging his shoulders as if it was no big deal. "If the defense is going to give that to you, you gotta take it from them. No fear, no worry, just take it."
As far as the MVP goes, this year is a strong contest between Manning and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees(notes), with Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre(notes), San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) and even Tennessee running back Chris Johnson being worthy of discussion.
But Thursday's performance was a unique moment in the MVP debate. Manning, who has engineered an NFL-record seven fourth-quarter comebacks this season, was pretty much going to have to do this on his own if the Colts were going to continue the pursuit of perfection. Up to that point, the Colts had been playing this game with a certain amount of caution. Defensive ends Robert Mathis(notes) and Dwight Freeney(notes) played on only obvious passing situations and the Colts did everything they could to protect them. Only after Manning's big pass to Wayne were Mathis and Freeney put out there on a full-time basis to help stop Jacksonville's final two possessions.
If Indy was going to do this, it was going to be on Manning's right arm and, in this case, his intestinal fortitude.
Most quarterbacks don't take these chances with this much on the line. Two games ago against San Diego, Denver quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) threw short into the teeth of the Chargers defense rather than take a chance.
By contrast, Manning has taken big bites out of the defense in crucial situations the past two games. Against Denver on Sunday, Manning faced a fourth-and-4 late in the first half and threw a strike to Clark over the top of the defense.
"A lot of the times, the defense is sitting right there on that and they're forcing you to go for something a little longer," Manning said.
OK, but "a little longer" doesn't have to mean as far as you can chuck it. Manning's play to Wayne was a play that should be part of a clinic. As he drifted to his left and stepped up in the pocket, he used his eyes to force the safeties to stay relatively short just as Wayne broke away from double coverage and took off deep.
His throw hit Wayne directly in stride at roughly the Jacksonville 20-yard line and then Wayne took it the rest of the way. It was Manning's fourth TD pass of the game, giving him back-to-back games with four and tying him with Marino for the second most games with four TD passes with 21. Favre is first with 22. Considering that Manning is in only his 12th season, you can give him that record now.
Even more, Manning has arguably surpassed Marino as the greatest pure passer in the history of the game. His ability to read defenses, throw into tight spots, get rid of the ball quickly – whatever skill you want to name – is just as good as Marino's.
And now, he has the chutzpah, too.