NEW YORK — This is what it is like to be one of Peyton Manning's receivers:
"He questions your knowledge at all times. So you have to be prepared. There's no sitting back," Andre Caldwell is saying. "You've got to be on point at all times. He'll ask me what did I learn on film from the night before. He's that guy. He's like a coach."
Imagine what it is like this week, Manning's third Super Bowl and the first with Denver, the first since the Colts left him for clinically dead nearly two years ago.
"His preparation is second to none. He works so hard," Caldwell says. "He's the first person in the building and the last person to leave. He opens up the building, damn near. You know he's there early because he's in there before the guys getting treatment and he's already working on football."
Caldwell, 28, is the former Bengals wide receiver who has settled in as Manning's No. 4 receiver. He had just 16 catches in his 264 snaps this past season, but the word in Denver is that The Man trusts him. Manning knows what the fans in Cincy know. Caldwell will be in the right spot and when he gets there, he'll catch it. Remember, in the years when Chad Johnson, Jerome Simpson and Chris Henry could only play one receiver spot, Caldwell (and T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a season) played them all.
(It will be recalled the Caldwell owns the two biggest catches in the Marvin Lewis era and they came 14 days apart in 2009 when his four-yard TD catch with 14 seconds left and his 20-yard TD with 22 seconds left beat the Steelers and Ravens, respectively.)
"His biggest attribute? His brain," Caldwell says. "Everything is a mental game with him, he's unstoppable."
Caldwell admits things suddenly changed when Manning became his quarterback in the spring of 2012, when they both changed teams.
"Yeah, it was a culture shock," Caldwell says. "I never worked so hard and prepared so hard in football in my life … you have to study at night at home. It's because of (Manning)."
The kind of guy you don't want to let down and Caldwell didn't when he got pressed into service against the Chargers in the Thursday night game on Dec. 12. With slot receiver Wes Welker out, the Broncos moved Eric Decker inside when they went three receivers and put Caldwell in Decker's spot on the outside.
The Broncos struck first when Manning found Caldwell running past cornerback Richard Marshall for a 15-yard TD that made it 7-0 and then again for a five-yard touchdown catch with 10:25 left in the game that cut San Diego's lead to 24-17 in a game the Broncos ended up losing, 27-20.
"They liked the matchup. That wasn't in the game plan going in. I didn't know how much I was going to play," Caldwell said. "They saw me one-on-one on the corner and I gave (Marshall) a post-corner and he went for the post move. I ended up being wide open. And on the other one, it was like a little bubble screen. It was just great blocking and it was one-on-one to the goal line and I won."
No surprise here. The plays were products of the first guy in the building.
"Peyton saw how they were going to play it," Caldwell says. "He checked to both particular plays. He does it all the time. He liked the matchup."
Manning noted this week that Caldwell hasn't had much of a shot. Demaryius Thomas (1,131 snaps according to Pro Football Focus) and Decker (1,073) have been healthy. And while Welker (787) has taken his shots, Caldwell has been impressed with how the guy keeps getting up.
"He's one of the toughest receivers I've ever seen," Caldwell says. "He comes in every day and goes 100 miles an hour. He never slows down. You really have to knock him out to get him out of the game."
He also says it's the healthiest he's been in a few years. Caldwell says his last two years with the Bengals in 2010 and 2011 were hampered by an abdominal/sports hernia issue, but it sounds like he's never left. He regularly follows the team that drafted him in the third round out of Florida in 2008 and tells his wife of two years, Niche', that he'll always think highly of the Bengals because they gave him a shot.
He played on the reboot team of '11, still texts with Anthony Collins, and works out in the offseason with A.J. Green in Atlanta.
"I knew that was a good team. So much talent on the team. Not everybody was buying into what the coaches were saying and what was going on. That finally came around (in '11)," Caldwell says. "Everybody was on their own, making their own plays. I think everyone has bought in over there and it's showing on Sundays."
Caldwell is a Green believer and tells anyone that asks that he's one of the three best receivers in the league.
"I saw it live. I used to sit there and say, 'He's not going to make that play,' and he comes down with it," Caldwell says. "When the ball is in the air, he's second to none."
Caldwell is also not going to join in on the Andy Dalton banging, but he understands the fans' frustrations.
"They want a playoff win; I can understand that," Caldwell says. "But when I was there he was a young quarterback that got better every week. I expected him to do big things. It's tough to win in this league. Teams make adjustments. He just needs to get over the hump. He's got the tools. He's got the talent around him. He's got everything to do it and he's definitely got the weapons around him. Everybody questions his arm, but I've seen him throw some bombs out there."
Manning may not be throwing bombs Sunday. Not with that Seattle secondary and the New Jersey winds doling out 1-2 punishment. But he'll be finding and exploiting anything he can. Caldwell knows he'll have to be ready when the maestro calls.
"He's at a level where you can't confuse him," Caldwell says. "He knows everything, but he still works on the field like he's a rookie and he's building on top of that."