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Manning's reward for challenging season is 3rd MVP

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[January 03, 2009]  INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Peyton Manning considers 2008 the most challenging season in his 11-year career. It also proved to be the most rewarding.

The Colts quarterback overcame two knee surgeries, uncertainty and an uncharacteristically sluggish start to win his record-tying third Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player award.

Manning won in a landslide, taking 32-of-50 votes from a nationwide panel of sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL. Miami quarterback Chad Pennington and Atlanta running back Michael Turner tied for second with four votes in balloting announced Friday.

The difference: Manning's performance in a nine-game winning streak that gave Indianapolis its sixth straight 12-win season and put it back in the playoffs.

"I'm honored to receive this award, firstly, because of the numerous other worthy candidates that were in the hunt," Manning said. "It was fun for me to watch some of these other players have these outstanding years. That's really why I'm honored to win this award."

The latest win comes with Manning's traditional trademark -- more milestones.

He now shares the league record for most MVPs with Brett Favre, who won three straight from 1995-97. Manning won the award in 2003 and 2004, and both players were co-MVPs once. The Associated Press first awarded the MVP in 1961.

Manning didn't look like an MVP candidate at first. Lacking some mobility and unable to finish some throws, he struggled throughout September and October as the Colts went 3-4.

But as he got healthy, Manning reverted to form.

He topped 4,000 yards for the ninth time, extending his NFL record, throwing 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the final nine games. It was good enough to produce the franchise's longest season-ending winning streak since 1975 and get the Colts into the playoffs for a seventh straight year.

Indy plays at AFC West champion San Diego on Saturday.

Those who have witnessed Manning's magic week after week and year after year believe he was even better than the numbers suggest.

"I've seen some stretches where he's been hotter, but how we've done it and the fact that they've been must-win games from Nov. 1 on and how he's prepared, that's the thing people don't see," coach Tony Dungy said. "For winning under pressure and doing it consistently when we needed it, this has been a great stretch."

Manning insisted the Colts' remarkable turnaround isn't all his doing.

He credited other players and coaches Friday for staying focused and making improvements, while thanking team president Bill Polian and owner Jim Irsay for building and keeping Indy's foundation in place in one of the NFL's smallest revenue markets.

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"There's no way we would be in the playoffs right here, could have bounced back from a 3-4 season and won some of those fourth-quarter close games without those three people (Dungy, Polian and Irsay) and their staff creating a winning environment and atmosphere," Manning said. "I know it's an individual award, but I truly accept it as a team award."

Teammates deflected the credit back to the QB.

Running back Dominic Rhodes, who played with Manning during all three MVP seasons, said Manning was at his best when the Colts needed him most this season. Manning finished with 27 TD passes, a completion percentage of 66.8 and a quarterback rating of 95.0.

Safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 defensive player of the year, acknowledged Manning faced big challenges after sustaining the first serious injury of his career. It took two surgeries to fix the infected bursa sac in Manning's left knee, procedures that threw off his balance and made it tougher to finish throws when the season began.

Yet during the stretch run, Manning was nearly flawless. He completed 209 of 290 passes for 2,248 yards in the last nine games and had a completion percentage of nearly 82 percent in the last four.

"It doesn't seem like he's missed a beat in the last however many weeks," receiver Anthony Gonzalez said. "We're thrilled to have him, we're lucky to have him."

Manning has left little to chance, though.

He dedicates countless hours to film study, logs his throws to keep that right arm fresh and has made 176 consecutive regular-season starts, second only to Favre's 269 among quarterbacks.

And when he returned from knee surgery, Manning played through the pain and produced another MVP second half.

"It's been the most rewarding regular season that I've been a part of in my 11 years," Manning said. "We have had a lot of pressure on us. We put pressure on ourselves these past eight weeks, and it's nice to know that you can answer the bell."

[Associated Press; By MICHAEL MAROT]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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