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ON FOOTBALL

QB wasn't saddled by doubt

FOXBOROUGH -- The monkey isn't off Peyton Manning's back quite yet, but by late last night it had at least slid down by his waist.

For the second consecutive year Manning came into Gillette Stadium and lit up the Patriots' defense, causing some to wonder if perhaps he is now inside Bill Belichick's head rather than vice versa. Manning completed 20 of 36 throws for 326 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception while throwing for more yards to Marvin Harrison (145 yards, 2 TDs) than Tom Brady was able to get out of his entire wide receiving corps (112).

For some time now Manning and Colts coach Tony Dungy have been saddled with the charge that they were somehow mesmerized by Belichick's schemes and the Patriots' defensive execution, a case that was certainly reasonable to make considering that Manning went into last night's showdown between the undefeated Colts and the once-beaten Patriots with a 2-7 record against Belichick and a 1-6 mark against Brady.

But while his playoff performances have been dismal against New England, his last four regular-season games have been well-above-average and last night's was better than that in a 27-20 Colts victory that gave them a two-game lead over their closest competitors in the AFC for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Although much can change between now and that second season, back-to-back wins over the Broncos and Patriots certainly argued strongly for the Colts' place atop the AFC and all of pro football, at least for the moment.

In his past two games against the Patriots, Manning is 48 of 73 for 647 yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions, and last night he clearly outdueled Brady, who struggled his way to a 20-for-35 night for 201 yards and four killer interceptions against a defense that was third in the league in pass defense in the opinion of most NFL observers primarily because they were awful against the run.

Last night was not a story of what Brady didn't do, however. It was the story of what Manning did, which was about everything one could ask. He took his team downfield for scores every time he had the ball in the first half, pushing the Colts out to a 17-14 lead in a half in which he threw for 147 yards and put up a near-perfect 132.5 quarterback rating.

He had them in position to score on the first drive of the second half but Adam Vinatieri missed a 37-yard field goal and he found Harrison for a 4-yard touchdown after hitting him for a 29-yard gain and tight end Dallas Clark for 37 more on the way to taking a 24-14 lead halfway through the third quarter from which the Patriots never recovered.

Last week Belichick had cautioned that Manning had seen every possible defensive alignment to the point where little or nothing would be new or confusing to him. Manning then went out and confirmed that by riddling New England's defense for 326 passing yards, scoring twice as many points on it as the unit had been allowing on average in its first seven games.

Dungy, too, has repeatedly been criticized in these parts as a coach unable to match wits with Belichick, but last night his team seemed to have answers to whatever New England tried, even going so far as slowing down its running game to at least a manageable level a week after being gouged by the Broncos for 227 rushing yards in a 34-31 victory.

While the Colts were slowed somewhat in the second half, they punted only once all night and found ways to move the ball when they needed to most. In fact, had Vinatieri been his usual reliable self (14 for 14 going into the game but only 2 for 4 last night, missing uncharacteristically from 37 and 46 yards) the outcome would have been a 33-20 beatdown that would have had the football world talking of Colts dominance.

He didn't make those kicks, however, and so the Patriots didn't buckle completely until a final Brady pass slithered off the hands of Kevin Faulk and into the waiting arms of linebacker Cato June with barely a minute to play to end any chance New England had to force the game into overtime and challenge Manning one more time. The way things had gone, however, it didn't appear likely the Patriots' secondary would have fared any better against Manning had the game ground on.

"They did a better job than we did," a downcast Belichick said. "It's as simple as that."

Certainly Manning did, impressing Brady more than his own coach with his accuracy and his patience in the pocket when the rush began to close in in the second half.

"He's one of the best of all time," Brady said of Manning. "We got a lot of pressure on him and he stood in there and made all the throws. He played very well, as you would expect."

Although Indianapolis scored only 10 second-half points, Manning and the offense were more productive in the second half than they'd been in the first, difficult though that was to accomplish. Whatever adjustments New England made at halftime didn't change anything as Manning came out and passed for 179 yards in the second half in a game in which he and the Colts never trailed after rookie safety Antoine Bethea intercepted a Brady pass on the opening drive and the Colts then marched 68 yards in nine plays. The big moment on the drive came when Manning set the tone for the night by finding Harrison on third and 15 from his 27 for a 44-yard gain, rolling left away from a hard rush before lofting a perfect ball to Harrison, who took it down to the New England 29.

It was the kind of play Manning has made many times, but not that often against the Patriots until recently. Both the throw and his reaction to the Patriots' defensive pressure were near perfect, as was his 5-yard throw to Harrison several minutes later for the first score of the game. But perhaps the biggest moment for him and the Colts came after Brady led New England right back downfield for a tying touchdown to open the second quarter.

Manning got the ball back and hit Reggie Wayne for an 18-yard completion to open the next drive, converted on third and 3 by drilling Clark for a 7-yard gain, and then hit Wayne on a deep post for a 33-yard gain to the New England 2. When rookie running back Joseph Addai then ran for a score, it was obvious this was not the Manning who twice had been hounded and harassed into submission in the playoffs here.

This was the Manning the headline writers feast upon and defensive coordinators lose sleep over. When New England came back and scored immediately to tie the game again, the leader of the Colts' offense seemed utterly unfazed. He took what was available and didn't try to do more than necessary on the next drive, one in which he was bothered more diligently by the Patriots' pass rushers.

In the past he might well have made a fatal error there while trying to force a play. This time he did what is far more important than is sometimes realized -- he didn't go out in a blaze of glory. Instead he threw the ball away several times when things were too tight to be challenged after Terrence Wilkins's 70-yard kickoff return, settling instead for Vinatieri's 23-yard field goal with 1:46 left in the half to take a 17-14 lead Indianapolis would never relinquish.

Never was Manning able to skewer the Patriots the way he has other teams, but always he was able to move the ball and avoid the fatal mistakes of his early past against New England until the drive midway through the third quarter that led to what would be the winning touchdown, his second scoring strike to Harrison.

There were opportunities for New England after that, but they weren't able to do enough, either offensively or defensively. They weren't able to press the Colts' suspect defense and they weren't able to crack the Manning Code, as they had so many times before.

Just like a year ago, this game belonged to Peyton Manning, so now the high ground in the AFC race to the playoffs belongs to his team, a team that knew before the opening kickoff last night that it did not want to come back to Foxborough two months from now when the air would be colder, the ground harder, and victory far more difficult to attain.

"No one wants to go into Foxborough and play in front of these folks, or to Denver [in January]," said Colts offensive lineman Ryan Lilja. "This was big."

Just like Peyton Manning.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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