INDIANAPOLIS -- Here's an overused term in footballspeak: favorite target. Folks in NFL circles say that Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison is quarterback Peyton Manning's favorite target -- that of all the guys Manning could throw to, he prefers Harrison.
That's tantamount to owning a Ferrari, a couple of Chryslers, a Nissan, and a Toyota and asking someone, "Guess which car I like to drive most?"
That is not to cast doubt on the other Indy wideouts, for certainly they're a talented bunch sans Harrison. Yet the future Hall of Famer would be anyone's favorite target. Whenever he takes the field, he is the best receiver in the Colts' arsenal, if not in that particular game.
Said Manning about his favorite target: "When you get the ball in his hands, you get first downs, you get touchdowns, and you get big plays."
And, you get defenses constantly accounting for his whereabouts, as the Patriots will in Sunday's AFC Championship game. In 13 career meetings with the Patriots, Harrison has 78 catches for 1,141 yards and 9 touchdowns, making New England one of two teams (also Miami) against which he has more than 1,000 yards.
Two of Harrison's five 100-yard contests against the Patriots have come in Foxborough. Harrison caught seven passes for 88 yards, including a 26-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass in the Colts' 38-34 loss to the Patriots at the RCA Dome Nov. 30, but he anticipates a different game this time.
"I'm sure the Patriots are going to make some adjustments and I'm sure we're going to make some adjustments," he said. "The main thing is they made a couple of big plays on us in the first game. If we can eliminate their big plays and minimize our turnovers, then we can come out on top."
But Harrison said the Colts are more concerned about playing their brand of football than they are about the Patriots' defense. "We've been doing that all year to get to this point," he said. "We are looking forward to not turning the ball over and controlling the game, moving the sticks, and putting points on the board."
Harrison loathes drawing attention to himself -- no flair while running his routes, no high-stepping to the end zone, no celebratory antics once he gets there. But what a target: 107 catches, 1,503 yards, and 12 touchdowns this season, including playoffs.
Harrison has led Indy in receptions, yards, and touchdowns in seven of eight seasons (he missed the final four games of the 1998 season with a separated shoulder). He has the most receptions by a receiver in NFL history in his first four, seven, and eight seasons. In 2001, he moved past Sterling Sharpe for the most receptions over a six-year, career-opening span.
He is the leading receiver in club history with 759 catches, passing Raymond Berry (631) last season. In the last five seasons, he has produced the top five receiving and yardage totals in club history. He reached 600 career receptions in 102 games, making him the fastest in NFL history to reach the milestone.
Colts coach Tony Dungy, a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl XIII title team, was asked how many receivers he's seen comparable to Harrison.
"Really not many," said Dungy. "John Stallworth maybe is the only guy that I've been around. Cris Carter, I'd put them in the same category. [Harrison] can catch every ball that's close and make it look almost effortless. He'd probably be right there with those guys as far as guys I've been around."
Throughout Greater Indianapolis, Manning has become as popular as the Do Not Call Registry, in part because his red-hot performances have silenced criticism regarding his playoff futility. His favorite target, meanwhile, continues to relish his low-key status off the field and big-play reputation on it.
"I haven't been the most outspoken person or the type of person that wants to be noticed," said Harrison. "I just want to be known as someone who goes to practice, does my job, and just goes home. That's pretty much what I try to do. I'm not looking for any attention. I just try to work, play hard, and be happy. That's my motive."
For all of Harrison's success, the Colts have become synonymous with solid regular seasons and postseason futility. He said that's because "the teams in the past, we were learning. We put ourselves in the situation we are in right now. We were missing a lot of the pieces of the puzzle.
"Right now, we feel that we have everything that we need to get to the next game," Harrison added. "We feel that we have the perfect arsenal to get further."
That includes four others who caught at least 30 passes this season -- including running back Edgerrin James -- and wideout Brandon Stokley, who has had a stellar postseason.
Harrison said having more options has "helped our entire team. It has helped Peyton. On third down, everyone thinks he's going to throw it to me, but now he often throws to someone else. It helps us a whole lot."
Still, there is no disputing where the ball is bound to go. The 2001 and 2002 seasons marked the only times in Colts history that the club's leading receiver more than doubled its second-leading receiver. Harrison had 109 catches in 2001; tight end Marcus Pollard was second with 47. Harrison had 143 catches in 2002; James was second with 61. This season, Harrison's 94 receptions were 26 more than receiver Reggie Wayne.
Harrison knows that all the wideouts must play well against New England's stingy defense, which came up with a fumble recovery and interception in the Nov. 30 meeting.
"They play together, all 11 guys on the same page," said Harrison. "They use a lot of different schemes and try to confuse an opponent, not only the quarterback but the receivers out wide. If we can pick up the blitzes and know where everyone is going when the ball is snapped, that will be in our favor."