The Broncos offense that took the field at the outset of Monday's contest looked frantic, panicky, as if fearful that only an early lead would quiet the Georgia Dome crowd. Despite Manning's post-game comments following the Steelers triumph about not wanting to over-rely on the hurry-up, the squad opened with the no huddle, leading to this jaw-dropping sequence: incomplete short pass to Demaryius Thomas, a Willis McGahee non-run for a two-yard loss and a Jacob Tamme-intended heave into coverage that resulted in an Orlando Franklin interception, returned to Denver's friggin' one-yard line. Result: Atlanta touchdown.The next Broncos possession went pretty much the same way, with another over-the-middle chuck for Tamme winding up in the hands of an Atlanta defender, this time Thomas DeCloud. Hence, a Falcons field goal -- so Manning switched things around. Next time he went deep, he aimed for Brandon Stokely, not Tamme. Not that it helped: The Falcons' Robert McClain caught that one.
Wh'appen? Manning, the premier defense reader in NFL history, seemed not to see the assorted moving parts of the Falcons secondary, especially at the outset. Commentator Jon Gruden gave the credit to Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who's seen in some quarters as a pigskin genius, although he never seems to stick with a team for very long; recall that he lasted just one season in that position with the Broncos, during the discredited Josh McDaniels period. But whatever the case, Peyton seemed discombobulated -- sort of like a guy who's barely played in a year....
And yet Manning proved he still has the competitive steel that will make him a first ballot Hall of Famer. Despite a 20-0 deficit in the first half, he kept coming, engineering a scoring drive as time expired in the second quarter, with the score coming courtesy of a brilliant Thomas toe-scrape. And when the Falcons got ultra-conservative late, he took advantage, narrowing the deficit to just six points before the Broncos succumbed to the inevitable.
No, it wasn't a Tim Tebow-like comeback. But never did it seem as if Denver was out of it, despite the three-score hole and Manning's early catastrophes. Even when he's not at his best -- and man, he definitely wasn't at the outset last night -- he offers the constant hope for, and threat of, redemption. That's something even The Chosen One can understand.
Look below to see four videos: a collection of Manning's three picks, an on-field dust-up that showed once again that the replacement referees are in over their head (they had a terrible, if not game-changing, night), Peyton's press conference post-mortem, and an ESPN discussion of what went down.
More from our Sports archive: "Peyton Manning does to Steelers what he used to do to Broncos."