INDIANAPOLIS -- Ryan Diem caught the smirk. A few times while waiting for the Indianapolis Colts to run their next play, the veteran offensive tackle noticed that Peyton Manning was actually smirking in the direction of the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
That was when Diem knew that his quarterback had pretty much solved the puzzle that is Rex Ryan's blitz-happy, multiple-look scheme.
Think you're going to fool the lanky general in the blue and white uniform and shoulder pads with some elaborate strategy that he hasn't seen, something he wouldn't be prepared to handle?
"I think that's definitely his kind of game," Diem said with a smile. "He loves these little chess matches."
Little chess matches that produced big results for the Colts' offense on the way to a 30-17 victory over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. In throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns, Manning conquered everything the Jets threw his way.
The Jets blitzed, and did come up with a couple of early sacks by linebacker David Harris. They even kept the Colts off the scoreboard for the entire first quarter and limited them to 13 points in the first half. But eventually, Manning figured them out and led the Colts to a 17-0 second half.
Ultimately, their blitzes became ineffective. When they played man-to-man coverage, and standout cornerback Darrelle Revis was blanketing Reggie Wayne, Manning put the ball into the hands of the receivers drawing more favorable matchups -- Pierre Garcon, who caught 11 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown, and Austin Collie, who caught seven passes for 123 yards and a score. When they played zone, Manning connected with his reliable tight end, Dallas Clark.
Manning's passes came out fast and true. If there was only one spot where the ball could be caught, he put it there. And he kept hooking up with receivers, over and over, and kept making the right calls, no matter what Ryan did in attempting to tie the brain of perhaps the best and smartest quarterback in league history in knots.
Manning made certain he was ready, treating Ryan like, well, another general. He devoted a week to doing everything possible to climb inside of Ryan's head.
"We grinded on these guys all week hard," Manning said. "I studied a lot of film. I studied the 2005 Colts-Ravens game (when Ryan was Baltimore's defensive coordinator). You kind of stick a game (in the machine) and say, 'They might play some of this defense,' and that's kind of what they did today. (Ryan) has his style of defense and he goes back to things that worked, and so I grinded on him -- me and (quarterbacks coach) Frank Reich and (injured backup quarterback Jim) Sorgi, we grinded on them.
"They mix it up. They move so many different people around, but the philosophy is somewhat the same, so once we got something that we kind of liked, we ran with it."
Manning's father, Archie, and brothers, Eli and Cooper, were at the game. Archie wouldn't name names, but he recalled a conversation he had after the game about Peyton.
"One of his coaches and another veteran player told me they thought it was the best half he ever played," the elder Manning said. "I kind of had a feeling that maybe he had them figured out. It takes a while. That's the way (the Jets) are. They do good things, and you've got to try to get a feel for it."
Try seems like too mild a word. With Manning, it's a mission.
He wins his NFL-record fourth MVP award. He is well established as one of the most prominent faces of the league, if not the most prominent. He likely has made all of the money that several small countries would be happy to have.
And yet, he still attacks the job as if his career depended on it. He still goes about his business as if someone were threatening to take his job and everything else away from him.
"He's a perfectionist; that's the bottom line," Diem said. "And as good as he is, I don't know if he's ever content."
Bill Polian, the Colts' president, calls Manning "the constant."
"We felt, going into this game, that we were going to need Pierre and Austin to step up and be big because we thought they would take away Reggie and Dallas, and by and large, they did," Polian said. "But (Manning's) the constant. You know what you're going to get week in and week out. There's nothing he hasn't seen before. There's nothing that's going to bother him. Once he gets it figured out, then we're on our way."
The Colts are on their way to South Florida for another Super Bowl. They have every reason to believe they'll hoist their second Vince Lombardi Trophy there in four seasons because they still have the man who was mainly responsible for the previous one they received.
Manning was the MVP of the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. It's quite possible that he is playing even better now. The guy has always put in the work, but the fact is, being 33 and in his 12th NFL season hasn't caused him to take anything for granted. With a couple of new faces in the supporting cast, Garcon and Collie, he might even be working harder to make certain that everyone is on the same page -- and that that page put the Indianapolis offense ahead of whatever the opposing defense is doing.
"Ultimate confidence," Diem said. "He's the best quarterback in the league, and I think we've got a pretty darn good offensive line keeping him clean and our receivers and running backs are outstanding as well. Confidence is what we're going to carry into the Super Bowl."