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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Manning does homework

INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the first things you realize about Peyton Manning is that he knows a lot -- a lot more than he'll ever let on. He could easily play the role of the smart kid in class with the perpetually raised hand. He just doesn't want to.

Sometimes he's eager to let you know what he knows. Sometimes he'd rather sit back and act like a man playing poker.

This week, the biggest of his professional career, is a poker week.

Manning won't come out and say exactly how much time he has spent studying the Patriots, but a conservative guess is 20 hours per day. At this point, the Colts quarterback is probably reading back issues of Patriots Football Weekly and requesting old Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti tapes from WBCN.

In yesterday's episode of Peyton's Place, the star gave a glimpse of how much homework he's been doing.

Almost casually, he mentioned the work of Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel, adding that Crennel "is a head coaching candidate -- he's the guy I think is calling the blitzes and calling the disguises." He said Willie McGinest and Ty Law receive a lot of attention, but he appreciates underrated players such as Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Tyrone Poole. He talked about rookies Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson. He reminded everyone that "[Richard] Seymour and McGinest really disrupted our offense in the first game and we've got to deal with those guys."

A few seconds later, he seemed to give the definitive reason for the lights remaining on after most of the city has gone to bed:

"There's plenty to worry about."

The AFC Championship game is three days away, and players in both regions are worrying. Manning's worries are different, though. His team is obviously a very good one, but it is far from balanced. It has a great offense and a very average defense. Really, Manning is the Colts.

No one on either side is going to say this, but if Manning doesn't play well the Colts won't win Sunday's game. This is not the kind of team that can be carried by its defense. That's why all the chatter about Manning having something to prove to his critics is nonsense.

He has already proven that he can lift an organization and tote it as if he were Atlas. He has already proven that his right arm is capable of masking flaws that other right -- and left -- arms can't possibly camouflage.

We all know about Manning's offensive dance partners. He has Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, a strong offensive line, and an offensive coordinator who lets him do whatever he wants at the line of scrimmage.

But this is the first season of his career that the Colts have had a Pro Bowler (Dwight Freeney) on defense. That means Manning played his first 80 professional games without seeing a defensive Pro Bowler in his locker room.

To really appreciate what he is doing and what he has done, you have to go over the past 25 years of Colt history. If the Colts tried to list their top defensive players of the past 25 years, they would most likely get to No. 3 and then start asking other teams if they could borrow their stars for 48 hours.

How do you feel about Quentin Coryatt? Do you have any Jon Hand posters on your walls? Can we get some love for Nesby Glasgow?

The Colts have had exactly two defensive Pro Bowlers since 1978, Freeney and linebacker Duane Bickett ('87). What a surprise: They have been in two AFC title games since '78.

They are here now. They are here because of a man who worries and prepares and tweaks and studies more than most players and coaches in the league.

Tony Dungy was asked if he has seen anyone study as intensely as Manning. The Colts coach mentioned Donnie Shell, one of his teammates when he played for Chuck Noll's Steelers in the 1970s.

Dungy remembers first meeting Manning in 1997. Dungy was the head coach of the Buccaneers. Manning had just left the University of Tennessee. They both attended the same awards show.

"We rode in the limousine together, his family and my wife and I," Dungy said. "We had a great conversation. He was getting ready for the draft and that kind of thing.

"I got here in 2002, and I didn't think he'd remember much about that. And as I started to introduce my wife to him at my press conference here, he said, "Oh, yeah. I remember your wife. We all rode to this airport together in the limousine at the Maxwell Awards. And we talked about this and that.'

"He had total recall about the whole thing, and I said, `Wow.' That's how he is about a lot of things."

By the time we get to Sunday, you will have seen 4,376 replays of the Patriots' goal-line stand against the Colts Nov. 30. The next time you see the replay, watch Manning's face. He wasn't playing poker that day. You could see how shocked and hurt he was to be 1 yard away from a win.

Manning didn't forget the meeting with Dungy from '97; he certainly didn't forget the sequence from six weeks ago. The Colts scored 34 points in that game, and it wasn't enough. "The toughest thing about New England is they are always so solid," Manning said. "You hardly ever see somebody just running scot-free because somebody made a mistake. They always seem to be in the right positions."

The same can't be said for Denver or Kansas City or, for that matter, Indianapolis.

Manning knows this. There is no need to stand up in class and shout about it. Instead he studies, trying to pass his team through any problems.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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