Peyton Manning's pregame ritual with his Indianapolis Colts receivers has something in common with the New Year's Eve festivities in Times Square.
In both cases, the ball drops once a year.
That's the way it seems with Manning & Co., at least, a group so practiced and precise that a whole warmup can take place without the football touching the turf.
"They practice so much that it becomes almost automatic when he throws them a pass," said Jim Mora, who coached the Colts for Manning's first four seasons in the NFL. "All off-season he's throwing to them up there in Indianapolis. During the season, when the defense is doing their thing, he'll take them to another field and he'll throw routes to these guys. It's the repetition that takes place with Peyton and his receivers that makes him so effective on game day. It's route after route after route -- more than any quarterback-receiver combination I've ever been involved with.
"I'd bet that you could actually blindfold Peyton and he'd be able to make those throws. That's how well he knows where those guys are going to be."
Passing precision is the calling card of Manning, who today could be named the league's most valuable player for the third time (only Brett Favre has won the award three times). Manning finished with 4,002 yards passing, the NFL-record ninth time he has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season.
Making that feat more impressive this season is the Colts' inability to run the football, ranked 31st at 79.6 yards per game.
"Our goal every game all season long has been to try to establish the run," he said. "You always kind of feel like, 'Today might be the day that things are going to pop.' If you look at us statistically, we've always tried to be balanced. . . . That's certainly the plan going in."
There's no reason to think that the script has flipped because the calendar has. The Colts are going to lean heavily on their passing game against the San Diego Chargers on Saturday, meaning Manning and his receivers will be working overtime. And, especially in the eyes of Peyton purists, that can be a thing of beauty -- even before kickoff.
"If you watch a Colts pregame, you understand why they're good," said UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, who found himself mesmerized by Manning's warmup routine when Neuheisel was a Baltimore Ravens assistant coach. "They're machine-like. In the old days, when it was just Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne [at receiver] they'd just go right down the field and hit every throw like it was choreographed, like watching the 'Nutcracker Suite.' The ball never hits the ground.
"So guys stepping into that feel that kind of pressure and raise their game to that level because it's demanded of them. Plus, there's the guy's mastery of protections and his ability to keep himself alive and make plays."
Neuheisel said Homer Smith, the storied UCLA offensive coordinator, was a stickler about that type of precision in warmups. So much so that Smith once brought in a surgeon from the UCLA medical center to speak to the football players about the importance of doing something the same way time after time.
Then, there was another UCLA coach -- one who maintains a friendship with Colts Coach Tony Dungy and Manning to this day -- who consistently stressed the value of practicing like it counts: John Wooden, who put his Bruins through rigid pregame routines.
"I see the excellence and so does Coach Wooden," said Bill Walton, who recently was visiting Wooden at home when the coach passed him the phone -- it was Dungy on the line. "In Peyton Manning, I see the virtuoso technique of Mozart, the analytical cunning of Michael Jordan, the leadership of Magic Johnson and the humility and grace of Larry Bird."
Of course, none of those guys had a 330-pound defensive tackle bearing down on him. Manning has, and this season has had to cope with the effects of two summer surgeries to address an infection in his left knee.
"It's been different," Manning said of his season, which included four losses in the first seven games. "It's not something I want to go through again. I have a whole new respect level for guys like Carson Palmer who have recovered from ACL injuries, and what Tom [Brady] is going through, and the many players that have had major injuries and rehab.
"Let me make it clear, mine in no way compares to major ACL surgery, but just the little time with the trainers and the rehab, it gives you a whole new respect for guys that have been able to come back from injuries."
With that adjustment have come various tweaks to the Indianapolis passing game. This season more than most, Manning is spreading the ball around. It's no longer a two-wideout show, not with tight end Dallas Clark and frequent slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez combining for 10 touchdowns -- just two fewer than the Harrison-Wayne combination.