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BOB RYAN

Manning sparks own heat wave

Gifted athletes don't always go along with our program. A lot of guys go where we lead them. Peyton Manning does not.

Ask him, for example, if his scintillating performances these past two weeks signify that he has taken up residence in that most hallowed of all athletic locales, the so-called "zone."

"I don't know," he says. "That's kind of deep for me, that whole zone thing with [Michael] Jordan. I'm just a football player. I'm just hot. Excuse me for saying `I'. We are just hot right now."

That's a nice try. But Tony Dungy isn't buying it.

"I've never seen anybody as hot as Peyton has been the past two weeks," says the Indianapolis coach.

Under Manning's guidance, the Colts have scored 79 points in two playoff games. The way it goes is this: Indy gets the ball, and Indy scores. Punter Hunter Smith ("Punter Hunter . . . who could make this stuff up?) last put his foot on the ball in the fourth quarter of the last regular-season game against Houston. And we're talking classic mix-'em-up drives here, not quick-strike virtuoso stuff. Against the Chiefs, the average Indy touchdown drive was eight plays, 72 yards, ranging in time from 3:06 to 5:40.

But you've got to see it to appreciate it. Right now Manning is not just a quarterback. He is a maestro, conducting a pigskin symphony, and doing so in an extraordinarily expressive manner. It's mostly no-huddle stuff, with Manning bouncing around, hand-signaling to the rest of his offensive unit, or bounding up to someone with verbal instructions. Before the first Indianapolis play from scrimmage against the Chiefs, Manning ran to the right side of his line, he ran to the left side of his line, and he skipped back to relay his thoughts to running back Edgerrin James. He covered more ground than the 1982 Ozzie Smith.

Arrowhead Stadium has a reputation for being an opponents' nightmare of sound and fury. But when Manning is taking his position behind center with the play clock showing 20 or more seconds, and when most of his communication is with hand signals, the crowd, to the amazement of the Chiefs, has been taken out of the game.

"I think you've got to tip your hat to Peyton Manning," says Dante Hall, the Kansas City return man extraordinaire. "He was able to function with the crowd noise. How do you stop that? I don't know any other quarterback in this league that could function and put his team in position to make plays like he did."

At 27, with six years of experience, Manning is at the peak of his game. Not this year. Right now. The man who will lead his team into Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon is the hottest quarterback in the known universe. "He's making all the right reads and all the right throws," says Dungy. "I don't see how you can be any better than he's been the last three weeks."

The plays themselves are football boiler-plate stuff. "No trick plays, no flea-flickers, or anything like that," Manning points out. "We have just sharpened up our execution."

He is operating under optimum circumstances. The best friend any passing quarterback has is a running game, and he's got one in James. Marvin Harrison is pro football's consummate receiver. Reggie Wayne has become a Pippenesque No. 2 wideout. But things are going so well right now that Manning even managed to place a touchdown pass in the hands of fullback Tom Lopienski, who had neither caught a pass nor carried the football all year -- until Sunday.

Manning knows it won't be quite that easy Sunday. The Chiefs are a defensive mess, and that was true even when they were jumping out to that 9-0 start. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson seldom called for a blitz. Manning could have played the game in a tuxedo and top hat. That is not going to be the case when he finds himself staring across the line of scrimmage at Romeo's Roustabouts.

He knows all about the Patriots, all right. If he goes on to win 10 Super Bowls he never will forget the events of Nov. 30, 2003, when he and his mates arrived at the New England 2-yard line, trailing, 38-34, and could not get the ball into the end zone in four tries. The ramifications of that outcome were many, but start with the fact that if the Colts had won they could be playing the AFC Championship game on their comfortable carpet in the cozy RCA Dome, rather than on the frozen surface of Gillette Stadium.

"That loss carried with us," Manning says. "Especially when you look at the playoff scenario. It would have been nice to get into the end zone. That was a long Monday and Tuesday for us that week afterward. The best thing for us was that we were playing the Titans the next week and we had to get serious."

He's heard all the tributes thrown at Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel, and he certainly appreciates their expertise. But to him there is a more basic reason for the Patriots' defensive success.

"It's the players," he says. "[Tedy] Bruschi is overlooked and underappreciated. Willie McGinest, to me, has always been awesome. Mike Vrabel is underrated. They have a lot of really good players."

But right now no one left in this tournament is playing his position as well as Manning. Back-to-back quarterback ratings of 158.3 (the maximum) and 138.8? Absurd. Orchestrating 13 scoring drives in 17 postseason possessions? Not possible.

"He's the master," lauds Kansas City defensive end Eric Hicks. "It's obvious why he's the co-MVP of this league. You have to take your hat off to him. That was an amazing performance."

This week will be interesting. Belichick loves to overpraise his opponents. What's he going to say about Manning?

Here is what Dungy says: "I wouldn't want to have to play defense against him the way he is right now. I'm just glad he's on my team."

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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