Peyton Manning has had great starts in the past, but most believe Manning has taken his game to a higher level this season. Maybe this is the year he'll win in the postseason.
Manning's 102.2 is second to Steve McNair in the AFC passer ratings, and Manning is tied for the league lead with 16 touchdown passes. But those stats only scratch the surface of his accomplishments this season. More importantly, Manning has established a presence, a degree of leadership on the Colts that had been previously missing.
"To me, he's in a zone," tight end Marcus Pollard said of Manning. "You've got to be Ray Charles not to see that. The guy's throwing bombs and touchdowns, getting us in the right play, audibling and not getting sacked. I don't know what else to say about the guy."
The transformation in Manning from a passing machine to the player who is the heart and soul of the Colts has been so dramatic this season that kicker Mike Vanderjagt is getting credit for it. Vanderjagt "called out" Manning with critical remarks of Manning following the Colts' 41-0 loss to the Jets in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Of course, if this is a new and improved Manning, no such pronouncements may be officially made until he wins a playoff game, but at midseason all indications are the Colts have the best quarterback in the league.
"We're doing so much with the passing game that they are going to have to have certain personnel in the game," running back Edgerrin James said of opposing defenses. "We were able to run the ball, Peyton was making the calls and everything was running like clockwork."
This Sunday, Jacksonville will get a first-hand look at Manning and the Colts (7-1) when they face the Jaguars (1-7) at Alltel Stadium. The two teams will make the turn into the second half of the season and, for the Colts, the next two months of the season will determine their destiny. Homefield advantage for the playoffs? Or just another disappointing finish?
"I think we've put ourselves in good position for the second half of the year," Dungy said. "Peyton has been outstanding. He's making great decisions. He's throwing the ball accurately. Things we talk about on the sidelines or at halftime in adjustments, he's going out there and applying them."
The Colts offense just keeps getting better and better. James is back from his knee troubles of the past two seasons and seems to have recovered from a sore back that nagged him in October. The other member of the Colts "Big Three," wide receiver Marvin Harrison, is having another great season. And on top of that, the Colts have uncovered yet another threat, former first-round pick Reggie Wayne, who is right behind Harrison in receptions and touchdowns.
Everything looks great for the Colts at midseason, but Dungy cautioned his team.
"We're still tinkering with the car. We're trying to get the right tires. We aren't in the race, yet. The race probably starts in November," he told his team last week. "It can put you in position, but that's all it does," he said of the Colts' fast start. "You can have the pole in the 500 and not win the race.
"It's still early. The special thing, and I noticed it in training camp and in the preseason, is our willingness to do whatever it takes to win. Our team really is coming together and getting that feel," Dungy said.
The second half of the season will speak loudest, for the Colts in general and for Manning specifically.