Manning breaks record with improvised play

INDIANAPOLIS -- Compliments of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who dispatched his private jet on Sunday morning to rescue a couple of snow-bound parents desperately attempting to get here from Memphis to witness their middle son break the league record for touchdown passes in a season, Archie and Olivia Manning got to the RCA Dome with just enough time to see history in the (play)making.

So maybe it was the miraculous presence of his mom and dad that left Peyton Manning, about as insightful yet dispassionate a player as exists in the NFL, so unusually emotional following the Colts' 34-31 victory against an impressive San Diego Chargers team.

Or maybe it was the fact that his 49th touchdown pass of the season, a 21-yard laser to slot receiver Brandon Stokley that nudged the Colts star one rung ahead of Dan Marino on the single-season ladder, came in the normal flow of events. Or that it came as the culmination of one of the most clutch series of Manning's celebrated career. Or that it preceded the two-point conversion which sent a game fraught with intrigue to overtime, where Indianapolis prevailed on a 30-yard Mike Vanderjagt field goal, less than three minutes into the extra stanza.

"It kind of all just fell together to make it special, I guess," said Manning, who directed the inspiring late-game drive only after chasing the Colts' punt team off of the field on a fourth-down play. "I mean, had we lost the game, it would have been a downer. And the record wouldn't have been as important. But, yeah, the way it happened was pretty neat."

One would think that, having accomplished so much in his celebrated seven-year career, there isn't much more Manning can do to force the media to invent new superlatives for him. But on Sunday, the latest chapter of Manning's storybook existence sent even some of the most estimable wordsmiths in the press box scrambling for a thesaurus. As Colts coach Tony Dungy noted, the final moments of the game, the circumstances under which Manning finally overtook Marino following a few weeks of unrealistic expectations, was a sequence no one could have scripted.

And so, with a victory that secured the Colts the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff bracket, the Manning Legend expanded a little more.

Indeed, the history of the NFL includes The Drive, The Catch, The Fumble, The Holy Roller and The Immaculate Reception, among its greatest plays. On Sunday afternoon, with the Colts trailing 31-23 and just one minute remaining in the fourth quarter, the ever-resourceful Manning authored another memorable Kodak moment.

For lack of something better, we'll call it The Whisper, and file all of the appropriate copyright documents first thing Monday morning.

With a first-and-10 at the San Diego 21-yard line, and the Colts in typical no-huddle style as they approached the line of scrimmage following an 18-yard hookup to wide receiver Marvin Harrison on second-down, Manning sidled up to Stokley and quietly delivered a play to his slot man.

The cryptic message: Run the post.

The play actually was a combination corner-post route, a classic double move that had succeeded for the Colts and for Stokley in practice, but that they had never run in any of their previous 14 games this season. At least not from a three-wide receiver formation with Stokely aligned in the left slot.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, Stokley and Reggie Wayne had run a derivation of the play, for a seven-yard gain by the latter. But on that play, with Wayne running a hitch route, Stokley had run a corner pattern. Not surprisingly, when a San Diego corner jumped on the Stokley route, Manning filed his hair-trigger reaction away for future reference.

With the game on the line, and needing a different twist against a San Diego secondary that played a deceptively aggressive zone much of the contest, Manning flipped through his voluminous mental inventory. He told Stokley to fake the corner route and then break the pattern to the post.

Touchdown. Record. And then one short Edgerrin James off-tackle burst for the tying two-point conversion.

"It worked just like it had in practice," said Stokley, who had seven receptions for 123 yards and became the third Colts receiver to go over the 1,000-yark mark for the year. "I mean, as soon as I saw how the corner reacted, with him going for the corner (route) fake, I knew I was open. The only thing is, the ball was on me so fast, I barely got my head spun around in time to see the thing. But Peyton, heck, he sold the play really well."

Fact is, as he walked up to the line of scrimmage, Manning looked toward Stokley and pounded his right fist into his left hand several times. The maneuver is, around the NFL, usually an audible for a corner route. But Manning, sensing that the Baltimore Ravens had caught on to some of the Indianapolis hand-signals last week, used it this time as a dummy audible. Actually, he could well have oversold the audible, because he used the hand signal at least four times before the snap.

As usual, for Manning, it all came together, as free safety Jerry Wilson took the bait and bit on the corner route. As Stokley broke the route inside, strong safety Terrence Kiel, who had an otherwise terrific game, slipped as he backpedaled. The result: There was no Chargers defender within five yards of Stokley when Manning's bullet stuck in his chest.

"It was a little bit of a 'dirt' play," laughed Manning, referring to the kind of school yard plays he would draw up in the Louisiana mud when he was a kid. "It was fun. And there is a reason, as we saw today, that you've got that stuff in (the playbook). Tom Moore (offensive coordinator) always tells me to go with my instincts if I see something I like, and that's just what happened there."

The play finished off a last-gasp possession that began at the Indianapolis 20-yard line after the Colts defense, which did not play well but made some key stops at really crucial times, forced a punt with 3:42 to play. On third-and-15, Manning was in the grasp of a San Diego defender when he floated the ball to James for an 11-yard gain. With fourth-and-four, the Colts punting unit started onto the field and Manning waved it off. He then converted the do-or-die fourth-down play with a superb 19-yard pass to Wayne on a fade-stop route, a difficult pass to throw under any conditions.

Then it was nine yards to tight end Dallas Clark, a seven-yarder to Clark, the 18-yard hookup to Harrison who got in between a San Diego zone coverage up the sideline, and finally the touchdown pass to Stokley.

"I think after we tied the game like that, so stunningly, you know, that even the San Diego guys sensed we were going to win," said Colts center Jeff Saturday. "There was no way, after that (rally), we could lose. We were about dead, down to our last breaths, and we pulled it out. For all us, I'm sure to Peyton, that makes the record mean even more. I mean, we had to dig deep to get this one, you know?"

That is largely because a San Diego defense that ranked just 26th in the league versus the pass, and which had the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL, played superbly. It isn't as if the Colts had never seen a 3-4 front before, but Chargers coordinator Wade Phillips did a fine job of disguising his blitz angles, and mixed coverages well, often deploying his safeties much wider than usual to funnel the action to the sidelines.

Sacked four times, and harassed virtually all day, it is hard to recall a game in which Manning was able to get his feet set so few times. Linebackers Steve Foley (three sacks and a forced fumble) and Donnie Edwards (nine tackles, a sack, an interception and two passes defensed), Kiel and cornerback Quentin Jammer all had tremendous outings.

On this day, though, it wasn't enough.

Typically more excited by the victory than his new record, Manning characteristically eschewed any credit, and as usual wormed his way out of attempts to plumb the depths of the emotions he tucks away so well. But as he talked about the special effort it took to get his parents to the RCA Dome with nine minutes left in regulation, and the effort and support he received from his teammates during the pursuit of Marino's mark, there was a telltale crack in Manning's voice.

"It's an individual thing," said Manning, who finished with 27 completions in 44 throws, for 383 yards. "But it meant a lot to a lot of people. And that means something to me."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.