Peyton Manning is widely considered the best active NFL quarterback never to win a playoff game. But teams that have been burned by the Indianapolis Colts All-Pro think he's the best quarterback, period.
Manning isn't the only focus of opposing defenses when they face the Colts. There are also running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison to contend with.
But when a team lists its defensive priorities, stopping Manning is not a bad place to start.
"Everybody talks about the (Colts') Big Three people. It goes back to the Big One," said Buffalo Bills coach Gregg Williams. "Peyton Manning controls it all. You'll see him control protection, control coverage, control the run game, does a great job audibilizing and checking at the line of scrimmage."
"Playing against Peyton Manning is always a challenge," added safety Keion Carpenter. "Without a doubt, he's the guy who makes that Colts' offense go."
In just three seasons, all Manning has done is produce numbers that rank among the best in NFL history. No one has passed for more yards (12,518) or thrown more touchdown passes (87) over that span.
"Peyton Manning has only been in the league for three years, but he plays like a guy who has been around for 10 or 11 years," said linebacker Keith Newman. "He's a great quarterback."
But not unbeatable say the Bills, who plan to give Manning a lot of different defensive looks Sunday.
"With a guy like Peyton Manning as smart as he is, you don't want to go out there and tip your hand," said Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. "The guy studies more than a coach."
The Bills want to give Manning a lot more to study this week. He is likely to see plenty of pressure from the front seven and a mixture of coverages in the secondary.
Blitzing Manning is risky because of his ability to decipher defenses quickly. The Colts also have big-play receiving threats, such as Harrison, who are adept at beating cornerbacks playing man coverage.
But it's a risk the Bills are willing to take.
"I think the worst thing to do is be afraid to go rush Peyton Manning," Gray said. "You cannot let a guy like Peyton sit back and throw the ball on rhythm. He will eat you alive. The biggest thing you want to do is make sure Peyton is not in rhythm in the backfield. If you can get him off rhythm, get him throwing off his back leg and doing things like that, you can take him out of his game.
"I've seen enough film from last year where people put heat on him and all of a sudden the ball is not coming out as crisp. Then you've got a chance. As long as you let him throw in rhythm, you don't have a chance."
Whether the Bills can get to Manning remains to be seen. The Colts recognize Manning's value to the franchise and the offense, so protecting him is a major emphasis.
"We work hard at protection," said Colts coach Jim Mora. "That's always the first priority in our passing game . . . the first priority."
Manning complements the protect-first approach with a keen awareness in the pocket and a hair-trigger release. Those attributes allow him to remain upright when pass protection is faulty.
Manning is among the least-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. In 49 career starts and 1,768 drop-back attempts, Manning has been sacked just 57 times. That equates to one sack for every 31 drop-backs. Only the New York Jets' Vinny Testaverde (one sack every 32.8 drop-back attempts) has a better ratio.
"I don't know that there's a quarterback in football right now that has the inner clock he has in getting rid of the ball on time," said Williams, who told the Colts' media this week that he uses Manning as an example in trying to get Rob Johnson to unload the ball quicker.
Johnson is the most-frequently sacked QB in the league, going down once every 6.72 drop-back attempts. Overall, Johnson has been sacked 40 more times in 20 fewer career games than Manning.
Even if the Bills don't sack Manning, they feel their pass rush can still be effective.
"If you can get pressure on him it's just as good as a sack," Newman said. "We have to pressure, and at the same time we have to get some hits on him as much as possible."
Manning has a lot of respect for the Bills' defense. He remembers two years ago when Williams coordinated a Tennessee defense that attacked and smothered the Colts' offense in a 19-16 playoff road victory by the Titans.
Manning expects the same kind of defensive assault Sunday.
"In games I've seen with Buffalo, I see a very aggressive style of defense," Manning said. "There's some different players out there, but some good football players."
It would be foolish to think the Bills or anyone can completely stop Manning and the Colts' offense. They have plenty of firepower other than the big three.
Wide receiver Jerome Pathon had a big day in the season-opening win over the Jets (eight catches for 93 yards) and first-round draft pick Reggie Wayne is expected to play after missing virtually all of the preseason with an injured ankle. Tight ends Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard are excellent receivers.
"I think we have more weapons this year on offense," Manning said. "I think the same players that we had last year are better this year because of the offseason work, because of the fact that they were there last year and they gained another whole season of experience with all 11 starters having played together. I just think you're a better team when you play together."
The Bills' defense needs to do just that.
"Everybody just has to be on the same page," cornerback Ken Irvin said. "We know the Colts are going to score, but we have to go out and work together as a defense to keep them from scoring too much. If we play good team defense, I think we have a good chance to win this game."