Last week, we wondered if Peyton Manning's two picks versus the Seahawks, following a bad interception against the Bears the week before, were examples of rust or overconfidence. But his performance in a 29-24 loss to the 49ers yesterday was spot-on even after he was slammed to the turf in a manner that raised fears his head might come off.
From the first possession, Manning looked in midseason form -- and we're talking about the middle of a season several years ago. He hit Joel Dreessen with his first pass, but more important was his second completion, to Demaryius Thomas, potentially one of the Broncos' biggest weapons, but largely absent from Peyton's arsenal until Sunday. And while the drive sputtered out with two incompletions, the first was dropped and the second found Manning throwing in the precise spot necessary to coax an interference penalty -- and had the replacement officials been more on the ball, he would have gotten one.
Instead, the Broncos wound up with a field goal -- but Manning would do better the second time around. Here's how NFL surgery is done: a nine yarder to Thomas, an eight yard strike to Brandon Stokley, and then a quick hitter to Lance Ball that set up Ball on a fly pattern that netted 38.
Not that Manning saw the latter. After letting the ball fly, he was drilled, and in slow motion, his head could be seen whipping toward the ground in just the way Broncos fans have feared ever since he was declared sufficiently healed from a neck injury to play. But said neck didn't snap, and neither did Manning. He popped up with no signs of ill effects, and after a short pass to Willis McGahee, who ran effectively as well, he found Eric Decker in the end zone for his first touchdown for Denver in a game situation.
As we know, said game didn't count. But Manning was matched up against the 49ers' first team defense, a cadre that was among the more fearsome in the NFL. And the next time he touched the ball, he engineered another touchdown drive ending with a Decker snag. Three possessions, three scores, seventeen points and out of the game before the end of the first quarter.
From there, the Broncos were spottier. Designated backup Caleb Hanie looked slightly less inconsistent than he has in previous appearances, and actually managed to pilot Denver to another six-pointer -- but he hardly instilled confidence that he could keep the offense rolling should Manning be sidelined. And rookie Brock Osweiler not only seemed unready for prime time, but barely sharp enough for the practice squad.
And while defenders like Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil impressed during their relatively brief gridiron time (with the exception of a 44-yard TD strike from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis during which Rahim Moore was embarrassingly out of position), their backups proved as susceptible to running-game gashing as last year's roster. Concerns about a lack of depth on the D seem pretty well founded at this point.
Still, Manning's turn puts those other worries in the shadows. For the first time in orange, he truly moved like a future Hall of Famer -- and if he can keep playing at this level, there'll be a helluva Broncos highlights reel by season's end.
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Here are highlights from the game.
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