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Fast start pushes Peyton toward another NFL record

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Colts coach Jim Caldwell became Peyton Manning’s personal tutor in 2002. He has never seen the three-time league MVP play this well.

Five games into the season, Manning is off to another perfect start, has set a franchise record with five straight 300-yard games, and is reaching milestones on a weekly basis. Next up: the NFL mark for most consecutive 300-yard games, which he could tie Sunday at St. Louis.

“He is playing outstanding, and I think that is an understatement,” Caldwell said after Manning’s last victory at Tennessee. “He’s always been excellent since he arrived here, but he’s at a different level now.”

Caldwell is not the only one who has seen changes this season.

Coaches from Seattle’s Jim Mora to Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher have publicly stated how impressed they’ve been with what they’ve seen on tape — and in games — from the 33-year-old Manning. They all believe Manning is getting better, and the numbers prove it.

Since Week 1, Manning has passed Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton for third on the NFL’s career list for touchdown passes and broken Hall of Famer John Unitas’ franchise record for wins by a quarterback. On Sunday, Manning can join Steve Young, Kurt Warner and Rich Gannon as the only players in league history with six straight 300-yard games, and then break the record at home the next week.

“He’s at a point in his career where the records are starting to fall because of his consistency,” tight end Dallas Clark said. “When you’re at the top tier at your position for as long as he’s been, the records are going to fall.”

The question is how many can Manning break this year?

He is on pace to complete 426 passes, which would be second in league history to Drew Brees’ 440 last year, and throw for 5,264 yards, which would be another single-season NFL record. Those numbers could fall short, though, if the Colts continue to hold a commanding lead in the AFC South.

Manning isn’t looking that far ahead.

“We’re off to a good start, but we have a ton of football left to play,” he said. “Guys are professional in their preparation. Those are good first steps. Hopefully, we can keep making plays on the field.”

With Manning playing this way, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Manning’s league-leading completion percentage of 73.5 also puts him on pace to break Ken Anderson’s single-season mark of 70.55 percent, set in 1982 — a number that wouldn’t be affected if he sat out.

It’s perhaps the biggest challenge Manning faces, because of Indianapolis’ propensity for hitting the big play.

“There are so many things that go into that. It’s pass protection. It’s the guys catching it when you throw it and you putting it in the right spot,” Caldwell said. “There’s a collective effort in order to achieve that goal, but he (Manning) is doing things unlike he’s ever done before.”

Yet Manning continues to operate in his usual fashion.

Over the last 16 games, Manning has completed 70.2 percent of his passes, thrown for 4,345 yards and 31 touchdowns.

He remains meticulous in his preparation, even recalling Wednesday that Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was not Giants defensive coordinator when the Colts played New York in 2006. He still keeps the focus on his work, staying consistent and doing whatever it takes to win games — regardless of numbers, records, personal accomplishments or accolades.

“It’s really hard for me to put what’s going on this year and comparing it to, say, last year,” he said Wednesday. “Each year is different, each year the team forms its own identity.”

But the Colts always seem to follow Manning’s lead.

With the exception of a sluggish opening week, the Colts have been incredibly efficient on offense. Manning led them to a victory at Miami despite having the ball less than 15 minutes, and he’s produced blowout wins the last three weeks.

Now comes a young, winless St. Louis team ranked 27th against the pass and seemingly ripe for Manning to take dissect. After that, it’s San Francisco’s 20th-ranked pass defense.

And those who have watched him for years or for the first time agree that nobody is quite like Manning.

“It’s really unbelievable what he is able to do. You watch film, and you can just see the kind of control he has, the patience,” Rams rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “It’s hard to simulate in practice. It’s one of those things that you can’t really simulate, how Peyton controls the game. You try to do one thing, and he’s just going to do the other.”

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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