Peyton Manning is the master of manipulation. He sees what a defense wants to do two and three steps before the defense moves into its pre-snap look. Manning anticipates. He dictates. He changes the structure of the Colts offense amid the hand gestures and verbal decoys that drive opposing fans -- and players and coaches -- crazy. Manning is, arguably, the best quarterback in the modern day and the work-in-progress Eagles defense has its hands full on Sunday.
"Anybody can get caught up in what Peyton is doing, in what he is thinking, and you can't allow him to show your hand as a defense," said safety Quintin Mikell. "He is the only one who really knows what is going on. It's tough. You have to stay within your own mindset and within your own game out there. You don't want to try to get inside his brain too much, because you will probably lose.
"He gets paid a lot of money to do what he does. To me, he is the best I've ever seen, maybe the best to ever play this game. You have to stay patient and know that they are going to make some plays. You have to keep coming back and fighting."
Manning shows absolutely no signs of slowing down in his 13th NFL seasons. He has 15 touchdown passes and just 2 interceptions in the Colts' 5-2 start. Even with a bunch of injuries to his offensive weapons, Manning has compiled a passer rating of 101.4 and the man is averaging a career-high 312 yards passing per game.
It all begins with Manning, the Incomparable One. At least in this generation. He has been unbeatable in the games he has played against the Eagles -- both in the regular season and in the preseason -- and Sean McDermott's defense faces its biggest challenge of the season on Sunday because Manning will head the offense, no matter who is around him, no matter how long the injury list may be, and he will go through his gyrations and his pre-snap routine and then he will take the ball, work the pocket, avoid pressure and fire darts that beats even the best of coverage.
"He is so accurate and quick with the ball. It's the kind of challenge you love. You want to compete against the best," said cornerback Asante Samuel, "and he is the best."
What approach do you take against Manning? It isn't like he has many games where he throws 3 or 4 interceptions. He isn't going to be phased by a scheme, and he isn't going to be fooled by a blitz look. If McDermott chooses to lay back and rush four down linemen and play coverage, well, isn't the worst thing a defense can do is give Manning time to sit in the pocket and scan the field? And the Colts have a veteran, strong group of pass protectors who know how Manning can slide away from pressure and find a throwing lane.
This is such an enormous test for the defense. A bye week has given McDermott a couple of minutes to examine the first seven games and to really see what went right and what needs to improve. He knows that Manning, despite the short work week for the Colts after their Monday night win over Houston, is going to be up to speed on everything McDermott has ever done in his short time as the Eagles' defensive coordinator.
So maybe the tact is to not try to catch Manning off guard. Maybe it is to just play sound, aggressive defense and know that Manning will get his, and the Eagles hopefully will get theirs.
"Communication is the key to the whole defense," said cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who is in line to make his first career start with Ellis Hobbs (hip flexor) hobbling. "We have to be on the same page on every play. If you aren't on the same page, Peyton makes you pay for it. You see it time and time again. He attacks defenses."
The Colts aren't as statistically balanced as some offenses out there. They have been pounded by injuries to the running back position, and losing tight end Dallas Clark is a major blow to the offense. Yet, they have Manning and he, more than any other quarterback, has been unstoppable against the Eagles in the handful of times the teams have played. He has 7 touchdowns and 1 interception in three regular-season wins over the Eagles since he entered the league in 1998.
Consider how long Manning has been a dominating player: The Eagles have started 10 quarterbacks since Manning took over in Indianapolis. He is the true definition of a Franchise quarterback, a once-in-a-lifetime No. 1 draft pick.
And now the Eagles get a chance to see where the defense stands midway through the 2010 season when Manning comes to town on Sunday. Should be a great test, a premier challenge, the kind of game you build a reputation on.
"It is a litmus test, because he does things no other quarterback does," said Mikell. "We'll know a lot more about our defense after this game. He is that good. He is the best."