Manning-to-Wayne helps unbeaten Colts burn Broncos

DENVER (AP) -- Maddeningly meticulous and impeccably precise,

this was Peyton Manning at his cruel best.

Skewering a Denver defense that was designed specifically to

stop him, Manning led the Indianapolis Colts over, around and

through the Broncos on Sunday, throwing for 345 yards and three

touchdowns to Reggie Wayne for a message-sending 34-31 victory.

Scouts Inc.'s take ...

In a classic showdown between the NFL's best defense against the best offense, it was a field goal in the last seconds that gave the Indianapolis Colts the victory. The Broncos held the potent Indy offense to six points in the first half. But that wouldn't last. Peyton Manning picked apart the Denver secondary with surgeon-like precision, hitting Reggie Wayne (right) for three touchdowns in the second half. Looking for Wayne more than normal, due to the tight coverage on Marvin Harrison by Champ Bailey, Manning connected on 10 passes for 138 yards with his second-favorite target.

Denver kept the game close and had a chance to win thanks to a strong running game, especially up the middle. With the Colts' defensive linemen taking outside lanes to try to pressure Jake Plummer, Denver was able to find wide-open run lanes between the tackles.

"When you play a guy like Peyton Manning, and the guy's going

to put it on there on the money, what can you do?" Broncos

cornerback Champ Bailey said.

Not much, as the Broncos (5-2) found out repeatedly, watching

Manning lead the Colts to scores on seven of their final eight

drives -- the only miss coming when he kneeled on the ball to end

the first half.

Manning's final drive set up the winning points on a 37-yard

field goal by Adam Vinatieri with 2 seconds left. It made the Colts

the first team to go 7-0 in consecutive seasons since the 1929-31

Green Bay Packers did it three straight times.

Manning made a mockery of Denver's cushy zone defense. Wayne

dissected it best, catching 10 passes for 138 yards, most of them

in front of Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams.

It was Williams who Denver picked first in the 2005 draft, a

defense-heavy class that was part of an ongoing effort by the

Broncos to shore things up after 41-10 and 49-24 playoff losses at

Indy in 2003 and '04.

But the Broncos aren't the only team that uses the offseason to

get better. Manning's work ethic is impeccable, and in a 2006 full

of stops and starts, he was practically perfect against the team

many thought would be Indy's biggest challenger.

"When you're throwing against Bailey and Williams, that's why

you work in April, May and June," Manning said. "That's why you

throw a lot in the offseason, with nobody covering. You pretend

it's Champ Bailey covering. You have to throw a perfect throw and

run a perfect route."

The Colts gained 437 yards and fell 10 points short of matching

what the Denver defense had allowed all season. The Broncos were

being compared to the best of all time.

Instead, those comparisons seemed more apt for Manning, who went

32-for-39 for 345 yards with a passer rating of 129.2. He wasn't

intercepted, wasn't sacked and probably won't even need to send

that white Colts uniform to the laundry room.

"He amazes me," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "Just his

leadership qualities, and his sense of urgency, the way he reads

defenses. He did a heck of a job today."

In small company

Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts became only the second team in NFL history to start 7-0 in back-to-back seasons after defeating the Denver Broncos 34-31 on Sunday.

Green Bay Packers1929-31

Indianapolis Colts2005-06

Manning's counterpart, the much-maligned Jake Plummer, won't

have to worry about losing his job this week. He did a super job

matching Manning, leading a Denver offense that hadn't scored 20

points all season. Plummer went 13-for-21 for 174 yards and a

passer rating of 104.1. Rookie running back Mike Bell came off the

bench for 136 yards and two scores, both career highs.

But this was one of those games where the team that has the ball

last was going to win.

Wayne's third touchdown gave Indy a 31-28 lead with 3:35 left.

But when Bell answered immediately with a 48-yard run, it was

obvious he might have done it too quickly. Indeed, the Broncos

stalled at the Colts 30 with 1:49 to go and had to settle for a

tying field goal. And then, it was Indy's game to win.

Manning won it cruelly and efficiently, working the sidelines

and finding every soft spot in the zone the Broncos used, and

surprisingly stuck with, even as Indy's yardage piled up.

The two big plays were Manning to Wayne for 14 yards and Manning

to Wayne for 9 more -- both catches made in front of Williams, who

all week acknowledged this game was something of a referendum on

his presence in Denver.

Williams didn't make himself available for interviews after the

game. Wayne did.

"I am not going to apologize to him," Wayne said. "I'm going

to work just like he's going to work. When I'm out there, I just

refuse to lose no matter who is on the other side of me. Like I

said, my number was called today and he was on me."

Vinatieri, brought to Indy to make kicks exactly like this,

nailed his 19th game-winner in the final minute of regulation or in

overtime to cap a 4-for-4 day. Denver's desperation kickoff return

went nowhere and the Broncos saw their 13-game, regular-season home

winning streak ended.

Indy, meanwhile, re-established itself as the team to beat in

the AFC, taking a two-game lead in the win column over Denver and

all the closest contenders with the season nearing the halfway


Manning -- well, he proved again that if it's the Broncos

standing between him and that elusive trip to the Super Bowl, he'll

be well-prepared.

"Remember when [Michael] Jordan was playing and he came into

town and people stood outside the arena just to see him? That's

him," Broncos defensive lineman Ebenezer Ekuban said. "He's a

phenomenal quarterback. The best quarterback I've faced in my eight

years in the league."Game notes
Joseph Addai ran for 93 yards for Indy, and Dallas Clark,

the tight end who has long been tough for Denver to cover, finished

with six catches for 68 yards. ... Rod Smith moved past Hall of

Famer Steve Largent into 12th place on the all-time receptions list

with 821.