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Three is no crowd for Colts offense

WP: Indianapolis trio of WRs complements Manning
Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne has emerged as Peyton Manning's best deep threat, averaging 15.7 yards on 86 catches.
Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne has emerged as Peyton Manning's best deep threat, averaging 15.7 yards on 86 catches.Rick Wilking / Reuters file
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

During Peyton Manning's first six NFL seasons, there was little doubt who the Indianapolis Colts quarterback was looking for when he dropped back to pass. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison caught at least 94 passes and 10 touchdowns each of the past five seasons. But Manning now admits he may have been looking for Harrison too often.

"Quarterbacks are kind of creatures of habit," Manning said. "Somebody pointed out to me that you throw to guys who get open in practice. If you throw to a guy on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, you are going to look for that guy on Sunday."

Harrison, a six-time Pro Bowl player, was always open in practice and has been open in games more than any other receiver in recent NFL history. In his ninth pro season, Harrison already has 845 receptions, sixth-most in NFL history, and he has averaged 6.1 catches per game, the highest average in league history.

But relying on Harrison too much forced Manning to throw too many interceptions. In 2001, Harrison caught 109 passes -- 75 more than No. 2 receiver Terrence Wilkins -- and Manning threw 23 interceptions, the most since tossing 28 in his rookie season of 1998. Nine of those interceptions were passes intended for Harrison.

"Marvin was the lone guy who was here every single year," Manning said. "He was here every single offseason, so I found myself throwing to him all the time in practice whether it was April, May, minicamp or what not. Therefore, on Sunday you are looking for him."

But this season, while putting together perhaps the greatest season by an NFL quarterback, Manning threw for a league-record 49 touchdowns (with just 10 interceptions) and amassed more than 4,000 passing yards for the sixth consecutive season. And he did it by spreading the wealth. Going into Sunday's AFC wild-card game against the Denver Broncos (10-6) in the RCA Dome, Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley have all emerged as big-play threats. The Colts (12-4) are the first NFL team with three players who caught 10 touchdowns or more and the fourth team with three 1,000-yard receivers.

"We all want to win," Wayne said. "We all want to do well. We all want to compete. Our motto is we don't want to lose. We don't want to let the guy across from us beat us. If you can get everybody on the same page, the sky is the limit for you."

Wayne got off to a slow start with the Colts, but the former Miami (Fla.) star showed in each of the past two seasons why the team selected him in the first round of the 2001 draft. After he was hobbled by ankle and knee injuries during his first two pro seasons, Wayne caught 68 passes for 838 yards and seven touchdowns in 2003. This season, he has emerged as the Colts' best deep threat, averaging 15.7 yards on a career-high 86 catches.

The Colts surprised a lot of NFL teams when they signed Stokley as an unrestricted free agent from the Baltimore Ravens before the 2003 season. The former Southwestern Louisiana star had never caught more than 24 passes in a season before this year, and his health was the primary reason the Ravens didn't attempt to keep him -- they offered him a one-year contract at the league minimum of $530,000. He missed the final five games of the 2002 season with the Ravens because of a broken left foot, which required two surgeries and months of rehabilitation.

But Manning urged the team to sign him because Stokley had worked as an instructor at the Manning family's passing camp in Louisiana. The Colts signed Stokley to a six-year, $15.7 million contract that included an $800,000 bonus and a clause that allowed the team to void the final four years of his contract if he didn't perform. He not only didn't perform but didn't play for much of last season, missing the first four games because of a hamstring injury and then four more because of a concussion. Stokley returned late in the season, catching three touchdowns during the playoffs. The team voided the back end of his original contract, but reportedly signed him to an extension in December.

Along with staying healthy, Stokley and Wayne have benefited from Manning's confidence in them.

"The past two years, Reggie and Brandon have been there in practice, they have been here in the offseason workouts," Manning said. "I have thrown to them a lot in practice because I felt comfortable looking to them. . . . When you throw to them in April and feel good about it, it registers in your mind this guy is going to be open for me, he is going to be in the right place on Sunday."

But one thing the Colts' receivers do lack is size. None of the team's top three receivers is taller than six feet and none weighs more than 200 pounds. Bigger receivers such as Terrell Owens (6-3, 226 pounds) of the Philadelphia Eagles and Plaxico Burress (6-5, 226) of the Pittsburgh Steelers may be more confident going across the middle on routes, or more adept at fighting off a cornerback's attempts at jamming them at the line of scrimmage. But the Colts receivers' lack of size certainly hasn't hurt their production.

"I'm not going to stand over the middle and let somebody take my head off," Stokley said. "After I catch the ball, I'm going to get what I can and I'm going to get down. That's just smart, and I've learned that over the years."

But the Colts receivers' desire to avoid contact also has drawn the label of being "soft" from defensive backs. Broncos safety Kenoy Kennedy, who was fined $30,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Wayne last season, this week said, "They don't like to be hit. They're small guys. Any time they can, they jump on the ground. You've got to be physical with them."

Colts Coach Tony Dungy said he'd take his small receivers over any others in the NFL.

"These guys have done things that nobody in NFL history has done," Dungy said. "I'll take about 10 more 'soft' guys just like this."