- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

The wait should end for Peyton Manning today.

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback sits just one touchdown pass behind Dan Marino’s NFL single-season record 48. It looked like Manning, who threw 44 touchdowns in his first 12 games for the AFC South champions, was going to end the chase earlier, but he threw just three touchdowns the past two weeks against Houston and Baltimore. But today should do it, considering the Colts’ foe, AFC West champion San Diego, is 26th against the pass.

San Diego (11-3) has won eight in a row and can get a first-round bye with victories today against the Colts (11-3) and in its finale against Kansas City and a loss by AFC East champion New England today at the New York Jets.

Chargers quarterback Drew Brees has skyrocketed from likely being a backup to possibly being tagged a franchise player. Brees had 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions for the 4-12 Chargers in 2003, causing them to acquire rookie Philip Rivers for Manning’s brother Eli. But this year, Brees has 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions in leading the Chargers to their first playoff berth in nine seasons. Brees’ passer rating of 103.8 is 36.3 points higher than last year’s, marking the biggest improvement ever charted in that statistic.

“A lot of guys could have gone in the tank and said, ‘I’m going to dog this organization,’ but Drew handled it like a true professional,” Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.

Patriots-Jets — The Patriots suddenly look flawed. Winners of 26 of its previous 27 games — including Super Bowl XXXVIII — New England squeaked by visiting Cincinnati two weeks ago before becoming the first team ever to lose to an opponent with 10 fewer victories Monday in Miami. The Patriots (12-2) could take the field today knowing they need to beat the pesky Jets (10-4) to assure themselves of a first-round bye.

Usually unflappable quarterback Tom Brady — see his 6-0 playoff mark — threw a career-high four interceptions Monday, including the foolish throw with Miami’s Jason Taylor draped all over him right into a linebacker’s arms to set up the winning score. The Patriots had won a record 38 in a row when ahead in the fourth quarter but blew a 28-17 lead in the final four minutes.

“Is every play perfect?” Patriots coach Bill Belichick asked rhetorically. “No. But I’m glad Tom’s our quarterback. There isn’t anybody else I’d rather have.”

New York lost 13-7 at New England on Oct. 24 and fell to the Patriots at home the past three years. However, the Jets were the only foe to hold New England under 17 points in its past 20 games and are 6-1 at home. New York figures to be the AFC’s top wild card thanks to the conference’s stingiest defense and former New England running back Curtis Martin, who’s having a career year at 31.

Eagles-Rams — With All-Pro Terrell Owens out until at leastthe Super Bowl following ankle surgery, fellow receivers Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell (50 catches, one touchdown combined) have to step up if Philadelphia (13-1) finally is going to use home-field advantage in the playoffs to make the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years.

“It’s tough losing a guy like T.O., but the season isn’t over,” Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said. “We’re going to continue to open up eyes.”

Rams fans have felt like closing their eyes. St. Louis is in a 2-6 tailspin and managed just seven points in each of the past two games without injured quarterback Marc Bulger. Last week’s touchdown came on defense, marking the first time in 111 games that St. Louis’ offense had been shut out. Now the Rams (6-8) have to upset the Eagles and/or the Jets next week for a fifth playoff spot in six seasons.

The good news for the Rams is that Bulger, who had 3,289 yards before badly bruising his passing shoulder, is expected to play.

“It’s all the difference in the world,” coach Mike Martz said. “Marc’s one of the elite in the league. Now that he was out of the picture, I think everybody can appreciate how good he really is. And how stymied we become in a lot of areas without him in there.”

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