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sampleAs always, it was left to Peyton Manning(notes) to bail out the breathless boys in white and blue, and at that very moment the quarterback was cooking up a surprise for the 52,567 roaring fans at the Coliseum, the Raiders and even his own teammates. Standing a few feet from Freeney after an Oakland timeout with 1:45 remaining, Manning and Indy offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen discussed the idea of the pocket-dwelling quarterback catching the Raiders off guard by running a naked bootleg. Coach Jim Caldwell was the only other person in the loop, with Manning, as is his custom, retaining executive-decision-making power at the line of scrimmage.

Soon, in one of the more stunning scenes of this surreal season, Manning would be chugging toward the end zone. And the league was left to ponder the notion that against all logic the defending AFC champions, who are closing in on an NFL-record-tying ninth consecutive trip to the playoffs, just might be hitting their stride.