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Football's Isaac Newton, rewriting history

This Sunday, Peyton Manning could surpass the record for touchdown passes in a season.

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To the uninitiated football fan, the image of quarterback Peyton Manning standing behind center does not inspire much confidence.

There he stands, a seeming Gomer Pyle in striped pants, nervously gesticulating in every direction, frantically moving befuddled teammates, and countermanding his own orders with long lines of gibberish. Even in the pocket, he moves as if he were on hot coals, replacing the calm of a Joe Montana with the happy feet of a Riverdance troupe. His throws often wobble in a way that would make John Elway blush.

But to this Southern boy with the baby face, football has never been a matter of style points, but rather of unraveling defenses for touchdowns and extra points. And this Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens, Manning could break the record for touchdown passes in a season - elbowing aside the Miami cool of Dan Marino for the controlled chaos of his Indianapolis Colt offense.

If he throws a mere three touchdowns in the remaining three games of season, he will surpass Marino's two-decade-old record of 48. On the one hand, his aerial blitzkrieg is a product of the times, as the National Football League increasingly uses its rules to promote the excitement of the forward pass.

Yet it is also the product of a rare football mind, at first nurtured by football's first family and now driven by a desire to piece together the ever-changing puzzle of X's and O's. "He is one of the most intense athletes I have ever been around," says Paul Attner of the Sporting News, who has met Manning several times. "To him, the game is about learning and studying and being prepared - obsessively."

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