INDIANAPOLIS – Peyton Manning has faced almost every conceivable NFL defense and figured out routinely how to beat most of them. He outwits them.

Yes, the NFL’s prized pupil has earned his graduate degree by carving up secondaries with uncanny accuracy, brilliant last-second audibles, a propensity for keeping everyone involved in the offense, and his ability to exploit even the most subtle weakness in a defense.

And don’t dare try confounding the two-time MVP; it’s a futile effort.

“There’s only so much confusion you can have because, basically, he’s seen everything,” New England safety Rodney Harrison said. “So you try to mix things up and what it comes down to is one-on-one matchups and who makes the plays when it counts.”

In Manning’s case, the long study sessions have paid the highest dividends when it matters most.

Twenty-six times Manning has produced winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including three in the past four games. He’s also refining old tricks and finding new ways to win.

Manning beat Jacksonville and the New York Jets with his feet, Denver and Washington with his arm. He used pure shrewdness to beat Tennessee and the New York Giants.

The message to opponents is simple: Give Manning a chance to beat you in the last two minutes at your own peril.

“We just sit on the bench and watch the offense work its magic on the big screen,” cornerback Jason David said. “When you have the best two-minute offense in the NFL, you have full confidence they’re going to score.”

Manning’s resume is long on records, milestones and awards, but the nine-year veteran insists he’s still improving.

Although he’s unlikely to challenge his own NFL mark for touchdown passes in a season (49) this year, Manning’s stats look like something out of a fantasy player’s dream.

In seven games, he’s thrown 15 touchdowns and two interceptions, a pace that could make him the most error-free quarterback in league history.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kansas City’s Steve DeBerg in 1990 finished a season with the fewest interceptions (four) of any quarterback with more than 400 attempts.

He’s also on pace for another 4,000-yard season, has a completion percentage of 66.1 and leads the NFL with a quarterback rating of 108.0.

St. Louis’ Marc Bulger and Kansas City’s Damon Huard are the only other players with a rating of 100 or better.

To Manning, though, success never has been defined by numbers; it’s measured in victories.

“I’m pretty critical of myself and make notes about how I can be better,” he said. “I’m still trying to find ways to get better. But ultimately your job is to win games and we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”

Thanks in large part to Manning’s mastery, Indy is only the second team in league history to start two straight seasons 7-0. The other was the Green Bay Packers, who did it three straight years from 1929-31.

Colts record books reveal a similar story.

Only Hall of Famer John Unitas (118) won more often as a starting quarterback than Manning (87). Another win Sunday at New England would make Manning and Tony Dungy the most successful pairing in franchise history, too. Manning is 55-16 since Dungy replaced Jim Mora as coach in 2002, and the

victory total is tied with Unitas, who was 55-20-3 under Don Shula.

Still, there are two glaring omissions among Manning’s body of work.

He still has not played in a Super Bowl, much less won one, and he’s struggled against coach Bill Belichick’s defenses in the past – sometimes badly.

New England eliminated the Colts in the playoffs in both of Manning’s MVP seasons, and made him look ordinary in nine previous meetings since Belichick took over as coach in 2000.

But Manning discovered a winning formula last year at New England when he threw three touchdown passes in a 40-21 rout.

, a game that made New England understand the present danger in defending one of the league’s top quarterbacks. Yet, he’s only 2-7 against Belichick’s Patriots, whom he faces Sunday night.

“He wasn’t befuddled last year when he came in and threw a number of touchdown balls,” Belichick said. “You can refer to the past, but it has nothing to do with what happens Sunday.”

Manning, too, discounts history.

But with an outstanding quarterback arguably having his best season – he led the Colts to scores on five of their last six possessions against what had been the stingiest defense in the league last Sunday at Denver, and who has been flawless in the game’s final minutes – the biggest challenge is finding a way to stop him.

And Manning promises to be ready for anything thrown at him.

“When you see something on the field that you’ve not seen on film, you have to be flexible enough to adjust,” he said. “The key is being able to adjust without having a negative play. … I need to keep getting better and we need to keep getting better as a team.”

AP-ES-11-01-06 1541EST



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