For years, Peyton Manning was the guy who made everyone around him better. Two games into the 2015-16 NFL season, it’s becoming clear that everyone around him is going to have to make Manning better.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
On Thursday, the Denver Broncos went into Kansas City and got what will perhaps be their most important – and certainly their most improbable – win of the season, beating the Chiefs 31-24 on a 21-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by Bradley Roby with 27 seconds left. It was the Broncos’ first lead of the game and will at least temporarily put to rest talk that Manning’s career is finished.
But it won’t change the fact that, despite leading an 80-yard, game-tying drive late in the fourth and throwing three touchdowns for the first time since last November, Manning is clearly not the player he once was. He might be the greatest quarterback of all time, but up until that final drive he often looked worse than even Kansas City’s Alex Smith.
On the Broncos first four drives, they gained just 41 yards and punted three times. On their fifth drive, Manning threw a pick-six interception to Marcus Peters. His very next pass should have been intercepted by Jamell Fleming, but he dropped it. Later in the game, Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah also dropped an easy interception.
It’s not clear how they let those passes slip through their mitts, because for most of the night, it looked like Manning was playing underwater. Many of his throws lacked velocity and/or accuracy, floating toward his intended target gradually before either sailing high or diving into the turf. It seemed like Manning’s Hall of Fame brain wanted to do things that his 39-year-old arm just isn’t capable of doing anymore. Yet the Broncos came away with a win anyway.
How? Because Denver GM John Elway has done something that the Indianapolis Colts were never really able to: Build a complete team around Manning.
Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders proved to be capable of catching anything that was in their vicinity and made huge plays when needed. Thomas finished with eight catches for 116 yards, while Sanders had eight and 87 to go with his two touchdowns, including the game-tying score (on a Manning pass that, to be fair, was on the money).
In the past, receivers like Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Eric Decker were lucky to have Manning. It’s abundantly clear so far this season that Manning is lucky to have Thomas and Sanders.
And a defense. The Broncos forced five turnovers in the win, including interceptions by Chris Harris and Aqib Talib – two of the best cornerbacks in the game – and three forced fumbles. They also had four sacks, including one each by DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, two of the best pass rushers in the game.
So far the only concerns really are the offensive line, which seems to be struggling in the transition to head coach Gary Kubiak’s scheme, and running back C.J. Anderson who has 24 carries for only 56 yard through two games. Everything else seems to be going pretty well for Denver as they improved to 2-0, no matter the circumstances.
But it seems apparent that Manning’s physical abilities have deteriorated. Heading into Thursday’s game, he had just four touchdowns and seven interceptions over his previous six games. Against Kansas City, he had another pick and probably should have had two more. He needed 45 passes to gain just 256 yards, an average of only 5.7 yards per attempt, which is his lowest Y/A in a game with that many attempts since 2008. There is no doubt that the onus will not solely be on Manning to lead Denver to the Super Bowl this season; they’re going to need to help him get there.
Which they might still be able to do.
After getting a huge divisional road win this week – their league-best 18th divisional win since Manning signed with them in 2012 – the Broncos have proven at least one thing: They are more than just Peyton Manning. They’re a complete team. Call them Manning and Company – emphasis on “and Company.”