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ON FOOTBALL

Manning not exactly going ape

INDIANAPOLIS -- That 400-pound gorilla costume Theo Epstein was sneaking around in outside of Fenway on Halloween night? Looks like the one that's been sitting on Peyton Manning's back for a few years.

Manning doesn't have to admit his lack of success against New England bothers him. Anyone with Manning's tremendous competitive nature, who has put up mind-boggling statistics (a record 49 touchdown passes last season), must have to bite hard on a pillow every time the Patriots are mentioned.

After Monday night's game at Gillette Stadium, Manning probably would love to look the 400-pound gorilla in the eye and say, ''Get lost."

The Patriots have dogged Manning despite his awesome numbers. Although the Colts are 7-0 with a balanced offensive attack this season, Manning, who has only half the touchdown passes (11) he had at this time last season, has heard an earful from fantasy football fanatics.

''They're not happy with me," said a smiling Manning in the Colts' locker room yesterday. ''I guess they have different priorities. I've heard a few comments from people on that one."

Just as he's heard the comments about not being able to beat New England. Yet he insists he doesn't let it bother him.

If there is a chance to break through against the Patriots -- the Colts are 2-10 against New England since 1998, Manning's first year -- or a possibility they are ''ripe for the picking," as Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt declared before the Patriots' 20-3 victory in the AFC playoffs last season, Monday night it could come to fruition.

When asked if he feels better about his team heading into a showdown against the defending champions, Manning said, ''We've had good teams here the past few years. All we are is off to a good start. We put ourselves in good position over the first seven games. So this will tell a true tale of what kind of team we are, what kind of team we have."

Those who have been around Manning, 29, say he looks much more relaxed heading into a game against the Patriots than he's ever been.

With good reason.

The offense has rushed the ball more times (223) than it has passed (204), to the point where Manning has checked out of several pass plays to run the ball. The Colts have the best defense Manning has seen in his eight years with the team, anchored by former Philadelphia Eagle Corey Simon, a 6-foot-2-inch roadblock in the middle of a defense noted for its quickness. The Colts are coming off a bye week in which they did more soul-searching than preparation for the Patriots, which started in earnest yesterday.

Manning is starting to benefit from what Tom Brady has had since he started his tenure in New England -- a strong defense to support him. For so long, Manning has felt he has to do it all alone.

''You sleep a little better at night," a refreshed Manning said. ''It's nicer going into a game knowing those guys [on defense] are creating field position for us, or causing turnovers for the offense. It's a little different. I will say that. I always get people saying that defense has been the story and you must not like that because you're not getting any attention. Are you kidding? This is what I love. This is the way good teams should have it."

The only difference here is that the defense, which has allowed eight touchdowns (one on a kickoff return) and 77 points, has played some of the weaker offenses in the NFL. The Colts' defense faces its biggest challenge against Brady and the Patriots, which will go far in determining if Manning will have to turn up the volume on the offense.

He needed to do that against the St. Louis Rams, who scored the first 17 points of the game Oct. 17 before Manning -- with help from the defense, which set up four TDs -- led the Colts to a 45-28 victory.

Manning believes his team can play different styles, a trademark of the Patriots during their dynasty.

''We can play somewhat of a smashmouth, we can throw it 25 times in a row like we did against Green Bay, or run 12 plays in a row like we did against New England one time last year," Manning said. ''That's the nice thing about the flexibility of the offense and [offensive coordinator] Tom [Moore] and his play calling. The games are shorter now. We're going longer in our drives. Our defense is giving up long drives but keeping them off the scoreboard, and possessions are not as many as we've had in the past, but we're winning games and that's what it's all about."

Manning spoke about how much he loves to play in big games, yet all he'll say about what to expect Monday night in Foxborough is, ''I think you have to play, and it's an old cliche -- a 60-minute game. Every game that these guys [the Patriots] play, they're in it until the end. Usually they're winning it at the end. It's going to be a four-quarter game, overtime, you never know what to expect, but you have to make plays throughout the game and be disciplined on both sides of the ball.

''When you're playing a team like New England that's going to be there in the postseason, it's a great test to see where our team stacks up. It's important because it's the second half of the season and we want to get that off right."

Down the long corridor at the Colts' complex, the offices of assistant coaches and meeting rooms had video of the Patriots ready for dissection.

What they'll see is a Patriots secondary ''ripe for the picking," and it makes sense that the best pure passer in the game would be able to exploit that by throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark, and Edgerrin James.

But until the Colts do it, until Manning can leave Foxborough with a smile rather than a frown, the 400-pound gorilla will be on his back.

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