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Inside the mind of Manning
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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning responds to a question during a news conference in Indianapolis Wednesday. - photo by Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning can play mind games all day.

In the battle of brains that gets played out on a football field, the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback usually comes out on top.

His relentless thirst for knowledge, his passion to know opponents better than they know themselves and his uncanny ability to recall crucial details in split seconds have many NFL observers wondering how, exactly, does Manning's mind work?

"It's quite confusing," Colts receiver Reggie Wayne jokingly said this week. "It's something that whenever his mind starts to go, I'm trying to get as far away from him as I possibly can. Just tell me the end result, that's all I need to know."

If only it were that easy for the four-time league MVP.

Though Manning has been labeled everything from the smartest quarterback in league history to the most creative, he's going to his second Super Bowl in Miami for one reason: Nothing is left to chance.

His normal work week consists of spending countless hours breaking down film at home or in the team complex, taking notes about anything that could give him an edge. He spends extra time working with young receivers Austin Collie, a rookie, and Pierre Garcon, now in his second year, teaching them how to study properly.

That's only the start.

On game day, Manning spends time on the sideline studying photographs, refining routes, discussing protections and countering the adjustments defenses make to confuse him.

Sometimes Manning needs time to figure things out. When he does, it's a game-changer.

Just ask the New York Jets, who kept the Colts' offense in check for much of the first half of Sunday's AFC championship game. Then after a brief discussion with Garcon, Manning altered a few things and the Colts responded with TDs on three of their next four possessions. Final score: Indy 30, New York 17.

Garcon caught 11 passes for 151 yards, both career-highs, and one TD — the score that put Indianapolis ahead for good.

Manning insists he doesn't know it all.

"I don't know if I ever figure them out, I'll say that," he said. "They (defenses) can change anytime, I'm always aware of that. You have to prepare for the unexpected. The main thing you want to do is try to be good at what you're doing."

There's no question Manning has become the master of preparation.

Though most players refer to opponents or teammates by jersey numbers, Manning remembers seemingly everything. He routinely calls players by first or last name, or both. He recalls other NFL teams his opponents played for, their previous head-to-head matches, mistakes he's made against those guys, which colleges they attended and even, occasionally, a player's high school information — without ever glancing at a media guide or TelePrompTer.

It's a gift.

"He has the ability to remember almost everything he sees and hears," coach Jim Caldwell said. "He not only can take that information in, but he can also regurgitate it, and not only that, he can utilize it. The other level is being able to apply it when you need it, and he can do all of those things and he can do those things in the heat of the battle, under pressure, with the game on the line. That's what makes him so very unusual."

If Manning can do all that in a game, imagine what he can do with two weeks to study the Saints (15-3).

He has faced his father's old team four times since Indianapolis made him the No. 1 draft pick in 1998, with a 2-2 record. In the three games he's played against New Orleans since his rookie season, Manning is 56 of 83 for 864 yards with 10 TDs, six in the 2003 game, and one interception. Manning hasn't lost to the Saints in a season that the Colts posted a winning record and now he has two weeks to sift through their schemes.

"An extra weekend is not good," Wayne said. "If we were going into this game saying we were going to get our game plan done this week and not add anything else after, it wouldn't be possible. I can guarantee you we'll come in on Sunday and we'll have an addition to our game plan. ... It's been that way for nine years for me. It's never finalized."

Clearly, Manning embraces a battle of the wits.

And if the Super Bowl becomes a mind game, well, the Colts like their chances.

"What's the saying, 'A good chess player can see 10 moves ahead?' I think that's exactly what it is," linebacker Gary Brackett said. "It's like 'If we do this, they're going to do this. If they do this, I'm going to do this.' Thinking that step ahead and being already on to the next one when they break up a pass. He and Reggie are great at that. Reggie just throws up the hand, Peyton knows exactly where to go."