Peyton at 37—The Best From the Best
Peyton Manning is surpassing even the highest peaks he himself set, and someone who knows him well thinks it's only gonna get better. Plus, more Week 4 thoughts and Andy Benoit's quarter-way All-Pro team
On a beautiful day in Denver, it was hard to imagine Peyton Manning being better. Ever. We’ve been saying that for a month now, since the seven-touchdown-pass extravaganza on a stormy opening Thursday night rout of the Ravens. But Sunday, the 37-year-old quarterback living out his wildest dreams continued this run of greatness that is unprecedented even to him.
On Manning’s final four touchdown drives of the day against Philadelphia, Denver never ran a third-down play.
Denver had 12 second downs on the four drives. Manning converted all of them into first downs.
Eleven plays, 80 yards. Ten plays, 80 yards. Eight plays, 80 yards. Seven plays, 65 yards.
That’s 36 plays, 28 points, 305 yards. And no third downs.
Ninety minutes after the 52-20 victory over Philadelphia, I told one of the four musketeers Manning uses as his weapons, wide receiver Eric Decker, about the no-third-down thing. He paused for three or four seconds, taking it in, then said: “That is crazy. Crazy. But our mentality is to convert everything. First down, second down, first down, touchdown.’’
Another pause. “I have to say, hearing that is really rewarding,’’ Decker said.
I hear this on Twitter and email all the time: Enough of Peyton Manning! Not today. Sunday was Manning’s 228th regular season game, and would you believe me if I told you that, at an age two years past when Terry Bradshaw retired, he is in the midst of the best playing stretch of his career? You can look it up. Over a four-game span, Manning has never been better, and it’s not very close. Ranked by passer rating, here are the best four-game stretches of Manning’s career:
“I’ll tell you what’s scary,’’ said Tony Dungy, Manning’s coach in that 2004 season, in the NBC Football Night in America green room Sunday night. “Peyton will be better in November. He’s still getting used to his receivers, I can tell you, the longer he works with guys, the better they’ll all be.’’
Manning has been working with two of his four receivers, Decker and DeMaryius Thomas, for 18 months. He’s been working with the other two, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, for six months—though he did have some time with Julius Thomas just after he signed in March 2012, before the tight end underwent ankle surgery that limited him to four games in ’12—and zero catches.
Dungy disagreed with me about this Sunday night, but I think one factor in Manning’s favor is having Thomas, Thomas, Welker and Decker together as his receiving weapons. In Indianapolis he usually had three big ones together: Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and either Brandon Stokley or Dallas Clark. (Stokley and Clark were Colts from 2003 to ’06, but Clark didn’t emerge as a big receiving threat until after Stokley left for Denver in 2007.)
“I think a big part of it is we all want to win for this guy,’’ said Decker. “The line plays like, ‘Don’t let Peyton get hit.’ The receivers are like, ‘Run that route exactly the way it should be run.’ It goes to defense and special teams too. It’s a sign of unselfishness. I also think it has to do with our expectations. Even after a game like this, the attitude in the locker room was, ‘That was good, not great.’ That’s Peyton.’’
This afternoon, after a brief workout and some weightlifting, all of the Denver offensive players will gather in a Broncos meeting room. No coaches, just players. For one to two hours (the time varies; when they’re finished they’re finished), the players will look at the tape of Sunday’s games. They started this in Manning’s first year last fall. Anyone can speak up about anything. Communication on the field will be discussed. Audibles will be discussed. Route-running, blocking and blitz pickup … everything they see from every offensive snap.
“Peyton is kind of the leader of the session,’’ said Decker. “It’s an open forum. You got something good to say, say it. You got something to correct about somebody else, say it. We’re the players. We’re out there. Coaches are great, but we’re the ones out there with the game going so fast trying to figure things out on the fly. It’s a great thing for us to be able to talk among ourselves and make the corrections we need to make to get better. I’m a fan of it.”
In the first game of the season, against Baltimore, Julius Thomas caught a pass on a seam route and took a big hit from a Baltimore safety. Said Thomas: “When we came in and reviewed the game film, he’s like, ‘Do you understand that seam route?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ He texted me a couple of days while we were practicing for the New York Giants and he said, ‘You know, I’m really liking the way you’re running these seam routes—they’re a lot better.’ I just texted him back and said, ‘Your mom only has to tell you one time that the stove is hot.’ The message was delivered by the safety from Baltimore: I’ve got to run these routes just a little bit differently so I don’t have to keep taking these hits. It just shows you how well he knows the game.’’
What’s next? The Cowboys, at Dallas. Manning’s onto the Dallas defense, with Cover 2 coordinator Monte Kiffin this week’s challenge. Cover 2: The Indianapolis defense favored by his old coach. Dungy was smiling Sunday night at the thought of it. “Peyton only practiced against that defense every day with us for years,’’ said Dungy.
Maybe Kiffin can force Manning to convert a third down. That’d be one small victory.
The Dot-Dot-Dot Section
Yes, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman ran the game-tying interception at Houston back 58 yards with one shoe on. He told me that when the Seahawks were down 20-3 at halftime, “The locker room was fine. Upbeat. You’re molded, you’re shaped by fire from games like this. We showed we could grind out a game on the road against a great team.” … Seattle at home: ‘Hawks 74, Foes 20. Seattle on the road: ‘Hawks 35, Foes 27 … I don’t care what they say: The Houston Texans have to be having grave doubts about quarterback Matt Schaub’s ability to win a Super Bowl. That’s three straight games with Schaub throwing a pick-6 … You saw the instant replay snafu last night, probably, with Bill Belichick steaming about the Julio Jones catch that couldn’t be reviewed. The rules when the replay system goes haywire: When the system is down during a challenge the referee has to stay at the monitor for two minutes while the replay technician attempts to fix the issue. If it is not fixed during that time period there is no challenge and no charged timeout. That’s what happened in Atlanta. If the system becomes operational during the two-minute period, the replay can commence. I doubt there’d have been enough evidence to overturn the Jones catch anyway … In the span of three plays of the second half, the Patriots got key plays from three players not on the team at this time last year—a touchdown catch by Kenbrell Thompkins, an interception by Aqib Talib and a 24-yard catch leading to a field goal by fourth-round rookie receiver Josh Boyce. The longer Tom Brady can work with these guys, the better New England will be … So I had The MMQB’s analytics ace, Andy Benoit, post his All-Pro team through a quarter of the season, which you’ll see on the next page. My awards at the quarter pole: MVP and Offensive Player, Peyton Manning (no kidding!); Defensive Player, Ndamukong Suh; Offensive and Defensive Rookies, DeAndre Hopkins and Kiko Alonso; Coach, Bill Belichick … Rob Chudzinski on the Browns’ two-game streak: “Brian Hoyer’s got the knack to know where to go with the ball like a veteran. Having Josh Gordon back really helps. On defense, Barkevious Mingo’s energy has been huge for us, and Joe Haden’s taken on a great receiver every week and really been strong.’’
Looking ahead to the 9-0 Bowl.
It is ridiculously early. But in seven weeks, on Nov. 17, there could be a beautiful game in Denver: The 9-0 Broncos hosting 9-0 Kansas City. And two weeks after that, a beautiful rematch at Arrowhead Stadum. Check out the two schedules before then:
Postscript: Denver travels to New England in Week 12. Imagine Denver playing a 9-0 bowl against Kansas City one week, then a 10-0 bowl against the Patriots the next.
Funny thing. Lots of NFL things that look so intriguing in September usually get blown up in October.