By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning makes it look so easy.
The 49 touchdown passes in 2004, the 162 consecutive starts, five straight AFC South titles, eight playoff appearances in 10 years, even those endless television commercials. Most people just expect it.
That's why things have seemed so odd this season.
Manning has been chased, knocked down, forced to throw earlier than planned, and Sunday, he had to survive Minnesota's ferocious pass rush to produce perhaps one of the most brilliant comebacks in his 11-year career.
"It was an incredibly courageous performance," team president Bill Polian said on his weekly radio show. "I can't remember one, including San Diego last year, because this is a tougher place to play and maybe a more physical front in terms of rushing the passer, that was more courageous."
The truth is, little has gone right for Manning in 2008.
He opened training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list after having an infected bursa sac removed from his left knee. He spent the next six weeks mostly out of sight before facing a bevy of questions about a second surgery, his timing and his ability to take hits.
Now those queries have turned to the what's wrong with the Colts' suddenly stagnant offense. Indy's running game ranks last in the league with just 78 total yards in two games, and Manning's usually precise passes had been replaced by errant throws, dumpoffs and drops.
In the final 19 minutes against Minnesota, Manning reverted to his MVP form. He threw a strike to Reggie Wayne for the Colts' second touchdown and again to set up Adam Vinatieri's winning field goal. He scrambled in the pocket before hitting Anthony Gonzalez in stride to help produce the Colts' first score, and he caught Minnesota off guard on the tying 2-point conversion by giving the ball to Dominic Rhodes.
Manning was credited by some for willing the Colts to victory.
The truth is, it was old-school Peyton back to being himself.
"You know, it's tough to compare the comebacks," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "You've got the one against Tampa Bay a couple of years ago, and the one against New England in the playoffs because of the circumstances. But it's the freshest thing on your mind."
It's also the most significant step Indy has taken this season.
Manning has been playing behind a makeshift line that includes two rookie starters, veteran Charlie Johnson starting at a new position and guard Dan Federkeil starting for the first time in his career. Tight end Dallas Clark missed Sunday's game with a knee injury, and safety Bob Sanders may be out up to six weeks with knee and ankle injuries.
But Manning has always been the constant, and Sunday's victory did far more than give the Colts a much-needed respite.
It provided momentum and gave the youngsters a how-to guide to surviving in the NFL.
"If our defense hadn't been holding them, we probably wouldn't have had a chance to come back," Manning said. "It was one game, and we need to get better from that game because with a team like Jacksonville coming here. It'd be tough to win if we don't play a little better."
For Manning, there is no time for reflection.
Before the Minnesota win, Indy was on the precipice of dropping to 0-2 for the first time since Manning's rookie season in 1999. Now, it has a chance to leave Jacksonville (0-2), the biggest threat to its division dominance, in a big hole.
A victory would give the Colts a two-game lead, plus the early edge for a tiebreaker.
But teammates realize that Sunday's victory was more than just another win on Manning's impeccable resume.
"He's definitely fought through a lot of adversity to get here," Brackett said. "For him to go out there, after being hit all day, and make those plays is just incredible."
Admittedly, Manning is still not himself.
He acknowledged Wednesday that the knee injury is the reason Indy has been pitching to the backs more than running their patented stretch play, and it may take a little more time before they can start relying on that play again.
"It's still something that I'm dealing with," Manning said of the knee. "But I'll just get treatment during the week and get ready to go."
Teammates and coaches believe he's making progress, and as the win at Minnesota proved, Manning is rounding into form.
"We were getting rid of the ball a little faster and dialed up some plays where we could get rid of it," coach Tony Dungy said. "It's just a matter of him playing a little more and getting a little sharper."