Monday night is Manning's stage

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

The Meadowlands scoreboard read Jets 41, Colts 0, a humiliating score under any NFL circumstance, but much more demoralizing when the calendar reads January.

Pretty soon Indianapolis' idiot kicker was liquored up (or so the story goes) and questioning the leadership of Peyton Manning, echoing the talk radio callers who, while acknowledging their quarterback can throw it like few others, wonder if he can ever win the big one.

After all:

  • He is a career 0-3 in the playoffs, isn't he?

  • Tennessee won the NCAA title the year after he graduated, didn't it?

  • It was 41-zip, wasn't it?

Manning, being the voice of reason amid the foolishness of NFL talk, didn't deny the problem.

"Facts are facts," he said this preseason. "We haven't advanced in the playoffs. We haven't reached a Super Bowl. The individual success isn't important. It's what the team does."

So here we are in Week 5. Manning is throwing like never before and the Colts are winning like never before. Indy is 4-0 heading into a major Monday Night clash at Tampa Bay, which should tell us plenty about how this team has grown since that awful loss to the Jets.

How far Manning has come, too.

If this is a statement season for a team that has been threatening to be elite for years, then it is even more so for Manning, its clear leader. There is no denying his arm, no questioning his talent.

But facts are facts.

If he is going to be an all-time great, which for years has appeared to be his destiny, then he needs to drive his team to the next level. That means the playoffs. That means a Super Bowl. That means rebounding from the most question-filled defeat of his career.

Manning knows this. Last week he threw for six touchdowns against the Saints, completing 20 of 25 passes for 314 yards. He achieved a 158.3 QB rating, the highest possible. The Colts bludgeoned the Saints 55-21, even without Edgerrin James.

"It was total victory," coach Tony Dungy said.

But Manning only celebrated so much. Even after a September of performances that earned him AFC offensive player of month honors, 4-0 is not enough to wipe out the memory of 41-0.

"It's been a good quarter [of the season], is what it was," Manning said. "We're 4-0 in the quarter, and now we're starting again. It's October, so it's a good start. But it's all about what we're going to do this week."

This is Manning now. Not that he was ever an emotional, me-first kind of player. But he took the reality of last season's playoff debacle and refocused. He took the criticism and used it to fuel another offseason of relentless work.

He spent the spring and summer in the heat and humidity of Louisiana, throwing passes, improving footwork and watching game film after game film. Manning's work ethic is what has made him as good as any pure passer in the game.

He is focused on what is actually important – consistent improvement – not flashy numbers or a fast start.

"People don't know how well he plays every week," Dungy said this week. "He plays very good games for us week in and week out. Very few people play us like [the Saints] played us, where you have a chance to throw and do those kinds of things.

"He does a lot of things and plays winning games where we get 16 points and 20 points and his games are just as good. He puts us in the right plays and gets the ball to the right people. He has graded out as high or higher in other games as he did in this one. But in this one, you had a chance to see some big plays. It's more spectacular. But he does it every week."

Monday will be a litmus test in Tampa. The Colts still are trying to stake their place among the league's elite. Their quarterback is eager to show a national audience that the Jets game is ancient history.

But Peyton Manning is well aware that, win or lose, it only matters so much. This is the process, not the destination.

October is October. January is January.

And facts are facts.

What to Read Next