JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If, like many Americans, you don't get the NFL Network or weren't tuned in Thursday night, you missed a couple of special moments.
Former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive linemen Richard Collier, whose career ended after being paralyzed as a result of a shooting days before the season opener, sat in his wheelchair at midfield for the pregame coin flip. After that stirring moment, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning put on a tribute to recently deceased Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh with a performance that might have thrust Manning into the lead for Most Valuable Player.
Manning led the Colts (11-4) into the playoffs after a listless start by everyone but him. Indianapolis rebounded from an early two-touchdown deficit to take a 31-24 victory over the Jaguars at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. In the process, the Colts won their eighth straight after a 3-4 start, clinching the top wild-card spot in the AFC. Indianapolis will likely play the winner of the AFC West (either Denver or San Diego) in the wild-card round.
Through that 3-4 start, any thought of Manning, who missed all of training camp after having two knee surgeries, as MVP seemed absurd. Manning had 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the first seven games.
Over the past eight games, Manning has 16 touchdown passes and three interceptions. Against Jacksonville, Manning was absurd, completing his first 17 passes on the way to going 29-of-34 for 364 yards and three touchdowns. The 17 straight completions were part of an overall streak of 23 straight dating to Sunday against Detroit, leaving Manning one completion short of the NFL record set by Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb in 2004.
Manning did all of that while getting nearly zero help from the running game. The Colts had only 32 yards rushing on 18 carries. Aside from a couple of decent draw plays, the Colts couldn't keep the Jacksonville defense honest.
"If that was on national television, he would be the MVP," Indianapolis president Bill Polian said, emphatically. The NFL Network remains locked in a distribution battle with cable companies, meaning that Manning's effort will be reduced to highlights.
However, there were a lot of highlights, so watch carefully. Moreover, if you look close, you might see the wristband Manning was wearing on the first two series which featured "SB 33." That's a tribute to "Slingin' " Sammy Baugh, the former Redskins great and Hall of Famer who died Wednesday at age 94. Early in Manning's career, he went to Baugh's ranch in West Texas to do a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated and the two hit it off.
"I was thinking about him before the game," said Manning, who plans to send the wristband to Baugh's family. "I was slingin' it like Sammy. I hope Sammy was enjoying that one tonight."
While Manning will likely join Baugh in the Hall of Fame some day, the question for this season is whether this performance can pull him ahead in a muddled MVP race.
At different times, the discussion over MVP has rotated among quarterbacks Drew Brees of New Orleans or Kurt Warner of Arizona, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and even defensive players such as James Harrison of Pittsburgh and Albert Haynesworth of Tennessee (no defensive player has won the award since Lawrence Taylor in 1986).
There has been no clear consensus in the discussion and votes won't be finalized until Dec. 29. But anyone who saw Manning on Thursday saw something worthy. The performance follows Manning's impressive play in Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, when he led the Colts to a 24-20 win. The Steelers have since run off five straight victories.
Against Jacksonville, Manning had both accuracy and timing to his game. On the opening drive of the second half, he threaded a pretty throw to tight end Dallas Clark on the left hashmark for 21 yards as the Colts were en route to narrowing Jacksonville's lead to 17-14.
After the Jaguars countered with another score to make it 24-14, Manning hit an amazing throw to Clark down the right sideline for 33 yards. Manning then finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Clark to make it 24-21.
"Couldn't have done it any better if he was standing there and could just drop it in," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who was doing a little backpedaling over an interview he did several weeks back in which he endorsed Harrison for MVP.
"That interview was awhile back," said Dungy, also explaining that the question was framed with Manning taken out of consideration.
What also seems awhile back is any memory of Manning being bad. Aside from the throws to Clark, he made a nice step up in the pocket to find Reggie Wayne for a 41-yard touchdown in the first half. He was particularly happy with two third-and-long throws he completed to Wayne when he looked off defenders and then found Wayne as the fourth read on the play.
It was vintage Manning and it was MVP-type stuff.
"That's Peyton being Peyton," Wayne said. "A lot of people were saying earlier this season that he'd lost it … Well, I think he answered that tonight."