Peyton proves to be untouchable for Ravens

INDIANAPOLIS – Can anybody touch Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes)?

This is a literal question, not a figurative one. As the only man to ever be named the NFL MVP four times, Manning has already gotten to the figurative status of "untouchable."

Instead, actually getting to him is more of an issue than ever before for opposing teams. Can they get to him in any way that forces the issue or otherwise puts the kind of pressure on him that can change a game?

Peyton Manning's Colts bid adieu to the Ravens' postseason hopes.
(Darron Cummings/AP)

On Saturday night, the Baltimore Ravens couldn't as they were handed a 20-3 loss in the second round of the AFC playoffs. Sure, the Ravens registered two sacks, but those were courtesy of Manning flops as he avoided contact in the second half and played it safe.

When it really counted, nobody got close to Manning. Nobody has all season.

Manning led the Colts to the AFC championship game next Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, back here at Lucas Oil Stadium, after getting plenty of protection on the way to a 17-3 halftime lead. Indianapolis will face the winner of Sunday's game between the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.

Manning entered Saturday's game having been sacked a career-low 10 times (he was sacked an average of 19 times over his first 11 seasons) and zero times over the past five games, the longest stretch of sack-free games in his career. The fact that he has rarely been harassed this season is both critical in the quarterback-centric NFL and impressive considering the circumstances.

The game against the Ravens was a clinic in protection, combining both solid blocking and exquisite timing. Moreover, it was part of a game in which the Ravens should have been able to pass rush. The Colts couldn't run (25 carries, 42 yards), yet kept Manning clean.

If this holds up and the Colts defense continues to handle the opposition like this, Indy can pretty much punch its second ticket to Miami in four years.

"The guys up front are fighting hard and our receivers are doing a good job of getting open on time," Manning said. "I'm not having to hold the ball a long time. We ran a lot of timing routes tonight against a lot of man coverage, a lot of double man."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh paid Manning his due respect.

"He does a great job of finding receivers," Harbaugh said. "He finds a matchup. I thought we really did a good job of making that tough on him."

It wasn't tough enough, as Manning completed 30 of 44 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns.

Most impressive is that Manning and his receivers have reached this level after the Colts lost three of their top five receivers from last season (Marvin Harrison(notes), Anthony Gonzalez(notes) and Dominic Rhodes(notes)) and replaced them with relatively unknown players (Pierre Garcon(notes) and Austin Collie(notes)).

To have developed this kind of timing after such a short time together is staggering. This is the kind of performance that usually takes years to develop.

The impact runs even deeper, giving Colts coach Jim Caldwell the kind of confidence to take a critical risk at the end of the first half.

Up 10-3 with seven seconds remaining and no timeouts left, the Colts faced a third-and-goal from the Baltimore 3-yard line. Many coaches would have played safe in that situation, taking a field goal and a 13-3 lead.

A well-timed blitz or a blown assignment on the line or by the receivers could have foiled the play. At least that's what a lot of coaches would have imagined. Caldwell, armed with the sense that nothing bad would happen, didn't think twice and left Manning on the field.

"I think we have earned that confidence in the coach to go for it with seven seconds left," Manning said. "I'm sure he'd tell you that it wasn't much of a decision."

Indeed, that's just what Caldwell said.

"There's always kind of a rule of thumb you look for around that five-second mark," Caldwell said. "You want to be careful. With seven seconds left, it either happens right now or he gets rid of it. He has done it enough times and certainly been around the block that we trust him to get it out of his hand with enough time to kick a field goal."

What the Colts got was a play that broke Baltimore's back. Instead of throwing into the teeth of eight-man coverage, Manning hit wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) at the goal line. Wayne danced along the line but clearly reached over the goal line with the ball for the score and the two-touchdown lead.

From there, the Colts defense took over, forcing three of four turnovers by the Ravens – the fourth coming during a Baltimore interception when Garcon stripped Ravens safety Ed Reed(notes). In fact, the Garcon play was part of a general implosion by the Ravens. The worst part of that is Baltimore's best people were the main culprits, with one terrible play or decision after another.

Specifically:

• Linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) committed a personal foul with a helmet-to-helmet shot on Collie, extending a last-second drive in the first half. The Colts eventually cashed in with a touchdown for a 17-3 lead. Lewis got up and screamed his usual, "This is football, man." Yeah, but it's not legal football.

• Reed had two interceptions wiped out. The first was erased by the Garcon strip, giving the ball back to Indy at its own 28. Later on in the same drive, Reed had another interception nullified by a pass interference call against Corey Ivy(notes). The Colts added to the frustration by eventually scoring a field goal on the drive.

• The Baltimore coaching staff spent four of its first five timeouts on defense, including all three in the first half. Not good for an offensively challenged team.

• The Ravens coaches also went for it on fourth-and-3 from the Indy 45-yard line with 6:01 remaining in the third quarter. Not a good call for a team that leans so heavily on its defense.

To recap, that's Baltimore's two best players and its coaching staff not exactly getting it done. Then again, what could really be done when you can't touch the opposing quarterback?

At least when it counts.