Manning still at the top as he prepares for 200th start

INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning's body is covered with bumps and bruises like any 13-year NFL veteran's.

He's also learned how to take care of himself. Don't take hits underneath the jaw, don't get twisted up in piles, and throw the ball away whenever necessary.

It's the reason Manning went from No. 1 overall draft pick to one of the league's most feared players and remains at the top of his profession as he heads into career game No. 200.

"Some days it does feel like it (200 games), and some days it doesn't," Manning said Wednesday. "The fun part is that a lot of those 200 have been wins and hard-fought wins, and it's been fun preparing for those games with all my different teammates."

The list of friends and former coaches could go nearly as long as Manning's resume.

From Marvin Harrison to Ken Dilger, Adam Meadows to Tarik Glenn or Jim Mora to Tony Dungy, all had a big role in Manning's development before riding off into the football sunset.

Manning, on the other hand, keeps right on going.

Last season, he won his league-record fourth MVP award and made it to his second Super Bowl in four years. Now, at age 34, he ranks third in career yards passing (52,312), touchdown passes (381) and completions (4,429). He's fourth in career victories (136) and has more than doubled the previous record of consecutive seasons with 25 or more TD passes (12). He's the only quarterback to appear twice in the league's top eight combinations for TD passes -- with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne -- and he's not slowing down.

This season, he's completed 65.9 percent of his passes and thrown 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions in seven games.

But the statistics only tell part of Manning's remarkable tale.

Outsiders and former teammates are more impressed by Manning's uncanny ability to play every week than his record-setting numbers. In 12½ seasons, Manning has never missed a regular-season start, making Sunday's game at Philadelphia No. 200 -- second all-time among quarterbacks, behind Vikings QB Brett Favre.

"It's really quite amazing," said former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, whose 116 straight starts were a record for quarterbacks until Favre broke it. "When Brett broke my record, I thought it would be tough to break that. And now Peyton's at 199."

If Favre ever retires, Manning might be able to catch him, although it would take almost six full seasons to get there.

Unlike Favre, Manning's game-day status has almost never been questioned.

Since joining the Colts in 1998, he's been hurt twice. A knee injury kept him out of the preseason finale in 2001, and a hairline fracture of the jaw later that season forced him to the sideline for one play. Before the 2008 season, Manning underwent knee surgery for a bursa sac infection in his left knee, and this offseason he had neck surgery. Neither surgery put his opening-day status in doubt.

"It's unbelievable," said Dwight Freeney, who has spent 105 career starts trying to put quarterbacks on the ground. "The thing I don't think people appreciate is how violent this game is, and how tough that is (to play every week) to do."

It's not that Manning is immune from hits. He does take his share, as footage from this year's season opener reveals, and he's been taking those shots for years.

Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, the second-longest tenured Indy player, has seen it many times, but the one he remembers most came after a botched snap in snowy Denver in 2002.

"Chester McGlockton was across from me, about a 385-pound guy, and as soon as I snapped the ball, I felt it hit his hands and fall to the ground," Saturday said, smiling. "I can see Chester get on top of him. So there's Peyton, his head down in the mud, and he's yelling 'I said on two' in this high-pitched squeal. I was down there, just giggling."

There is a reason for Manning's good luck: Protecting the franchise quarterback has been job No. 1 for the Colts since the day he arrived in Indy in August 1998.

The Colts have not changed their philosophy, although Manning has figured out other ways to stay off the ground.

"A lot of injuries are just because of bad luck, a guy rolls up behind you or something," said Dilger, the retired tight end. "But as a quarterback, Peyton kind of controls what he does and the risks he takes. He's one of those guys that works out incredibly hard."

And over the years, Manning has figured out a few things about how to dissect defenses, too. It's the reason Colts owner Jim Irsay is willing to make Manning the league's highest-paid player at an age most players' skills are declining.

Manning doesn't play things by the book. He rewrites it.

"I think I've kind of learned something each game I've played," he said. "I think defenses are more specialized now than they were two years ago and certainly 10 years ago, so you're constantly learning. And then you try to store that in your quarterback memory, because experience, I think, is the best teacher."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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