JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The search for the NFL MVP is over.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is your guy. For 15 weeks, we debated the choices. Could it be a quarterback from a so-so team with big numbers like Kurt Warner or Drew Brees? Or was it running back Adrian Peterson or maybe even a defensive player?
|Tony Dungy: 'Peyton Manning is unbelievable. He put a lot of it on his shoulders.' (US Presswire)|
It's also their eighth consecutive victory after a 3-4 start, which is why Manning deserves to be the MVP.
As good as his numbers looked against the Jaguars, watching it live made it even more impressive. He hit his first 17 passes and the first incompletion came from miscommunication when Anthony Gonzalez broke off his route and Manning threw long. Those 17 consecutive completions, coupled with the six in a row he had to finish the Colts' victory over Detroit last week, put him one short of the league record for completions, which is held by Donovan McNabb.
Manning dropped passes into tight windows, often went through his progressions to his third and fourth receivers, and was forced to play without a running game, which he's had to do all season long. And they had to rally from 14-0 down.
The way it played out led to Colts coach Tony Dungy going on the campaign trail -- for his quarterback.
"Those people who are wondering who should be the MVP, and saying Peyton is quietly sneaking up on the field, this was an MVP performance," Dungy said. "Peyton Manning is unbelievable. He put a lot of it on his shoulders."
The game was won when Keiwan Ratliff picked of Jaguars quarterback David Garrard and returned the interception 35 yards for a 31-24 lead with 4:48 left. When Dwight Freeney sacked Garrard with no time left and the Jaguars at the Indianapolis 7, the Colts were on the way to the playoffs.
"I like where we are right now," Dungy said.
He should. He has a hot team, a team that has overcome a ton of adversity and he has the best quarterback in the game starting to get into a groove we've come to expect from him.
Manning missed all of training camp with an infection of the bursa sac in his left knee. He had two surgeries on that knee, which led to his being held out of camp all summer long. He did start on opening day, but admitted that he wasn't comfortable until after the first month of the season.
As he struggled to remove the brace from his left knee, sitting at his locker late Thursday night, Manning said there were a lot of obstacles to overcome.
"It was challenging," he said.
The Colts started 1-2 and then went to 3-4, and there was talk they were going nowhere. Manning struggled behind a banged-up offensive line and the timing of the passing game, normally precision-like, was off because of the missed time in camp.
"I'm in favor of participating in training camp," Manning said. "It's all I've known. I didn't know what to expect. It's not the way I want to go into the season."
In the first three games of the season, as the Colts went 1-2, Manning threw three touchdown passes and four interceptions. He now has 26 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.
He was sacked nine times in the team's first five games, but has been sacked just four times since.
Manning has 3,907 passing yards, which means if he plays much in the team's finale against the Tennessee Titans next week -- and it won't mean anything for the Colts -- he has a chance for his ninth 4,000-yard season.
He wore a special wristband Thursday night. It had the initials S.B. and the number 33 on it. That stood for "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh, the Hall of Fame quarterback who died at the age of 94 on Wednesday night.
Baugh, one of the first down-the-field passers in NFL history, spent eight hours with Manning a few years ago in Texas for a magazine photo shoot, just two gunslingers talking how they throw the football.
"It was really a special day in my life," Manning said. "I was thinking about what he did, a real pioneer as a quarterback. Just thinking about Sammy, I was slinging it tonight. And I hope Sammy got a smile out of that game tonight."
Oh, he smiled plenty. It was a performance that would have made him proud, a fearless passer at his best, making play after play through the air. Manning already has one MVP and shared another with Steve McNair, one he deserved to win solo. Those were easy seasons. This one has been hard and it's the way the Colts and their quarterback have come through the tough times that makes him so deserving.
"It hasn't been easy," Manning said.
Neither was taking off that brace. He finally got it off, but carving up the Jaguars defense was a whole bunch easier.