The marquee star of the NFL's opening weekend is Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who begins a new chapter in his illustrious career after 13 seasons in Indianapolis. He's 36 and still rehabbing from the spinal fusion surgery that forced him to miss the 2011 season, so everyone is wondering if he can still work his magic and lead the Broncos to the playoffs, like he did 11 times in Indy.
That was a nice snapshot the old Manning gave us in Denver's third preseason game, against San Francisco. He completed 10 of 12 passes for 122 yards as the Broncos' first-team offense scored 17 points in less than a quarter. And Manning survived a vicious hit to his upper chest near his right shoulder as he completed an 18-yard pass.
We've seen premier quarterbacks try to recapture glory with other teams late in their careers, but this is not like Johnny Unitas displaying a shell of his former self in San Diego after 17 years in Baltimore, or Joe Namath limping out for the Rams following a 12-year run with the Jets. Two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback John Elway, now the Broncos' V.P. of football operations, is convinced Manning can still perform up to his high standards. Elway put his money where his conviction is last March when he signed Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract (it can be reworked if Manning lasts only one season).
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn't notice any difference in Manning. When he looks at tape, he sees the same sharp-eyed, decision-making, precision passer who picked apart defenses all those years in Indianapolis.
"He needs no endorsement from me. His resume is his resume," Tomlin told Pittsburgh reporters this week. "Guys like him make their reputations rising up in moments like this. He has battled some adversity with injury and being in a new city. We should anticipate his very best."
If you think Manning, who needs one more touchdown pass to become only the third NFL quarterback (Brett Favre and Dan Marino are the others) to reach the 400 plateau, has changed since changing addresses, consider this: This week he kept his former coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy waiting 25 minutes for an interview while he went over signals with his receivers in a meeting room.
Everyone seems to be waiting for the first knocking of heads between Todd Haley, the volatile coordinator, and Ben Roethlisberger, the strong-willed quarterback. Haley, Arizona's former offensive director and Kansas City's ex-head coach, has replaced Bruce Arians, who had mentored Roethlisberger since he came into the NFL in 2004. Thus far, the Haley-Big Ben relationship has been congenial.
Perhaps it was time for a new offensive maestro in Pittsburgh. Last season, the Steelers scored 325 points, their fewest since 2003, and their 21st ranking in scoring was their lowest since '98.
Haley wants the Steelers to have a balanced offense. He has resurrected the fullback position with rookie Will Johnson and will use a lot of two-tight end alignments. While Rashard Mendenhall continues to recover from ACL surgery (there is no definite timetable for his return, but he could play on a limited basis Sunday night), the primary running duties will be handled by third-year back Isaac Redman, who has only two career starts on his resume but rushed for 121 yards in a wild-card playoff loss to Denver last Jan. 8. The offensive line is in a bit of a flux without rookie David DeCastro, who was expected to start at right guard before suffering a knee injury in the third preseason game.
There are questions about the passing game. The Steelers will miss the reliable production, blocking and veteran leadership of wide receiver Hines Ward, who retired after 14 seasons. Mike Wallace, the team's vertical threat, missed the entire offseason and preseason because of a contract dispute. He has been back for only a few days, and he will have to get up to speed quickly in order to transition into Haley's somewhat complicated scheme.
This game may be the start to a new season, but it was only eight months ago when the Broncos stunned the Steelers in an AFC wild-card playoff game, winning, 29-23 in overtime, in Denver. The knockout punch came on the first play of overtime, when Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas cut across the middle of the field, clutched a pass from Tim Tebow and sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown.
It wasn't supposed to happen like that. The Steelers came into the game with an ostensibly superior team, having gone 12-4 and finishing second in the rugged North division. The Broncos had backed into the playoffs. They finished first in the West with a mediocre 8-8 record, but they had lost their final three regular season games by a combined score of 88-40.
Tebow, who had struggled in those three consecutive defeats and is known more for his running ability than his passing prowess, threw 21 passes in the playoff game, finishing with 316 yards and two touchdowns. But there will be no more Tebowing in Denver. Tebow now is in New York, backing up Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, and Manning is the man the Broncos are counting on to take them deep into the playoffs.
The Broncos wide receiver became an instant hero in Denver -- and a cursed name in Pittsburgh -- after his winning play in last season's playoff win over the Steelers. A first-round draft pick (22nd overall in 2010), the former Georgia Tech star could have a breakout season in 2012 if he can avoid injuries, which set him back in his first two seasons. Here's an excerpt from Thomas' chat with SI.com:
It's at my house. I have it in a case down in the basement. [The inscription on it reads] "Overtime catch in my first playoff game for a touchdown."
Since I was in high school. I'm not one of these shifty guys that can make a guy miss all the time, so I had to come up with something to help me separate from other guys.
I had one in college against Georgia. I stiff-armed a dude at the line on a play that went for 80 yards.
I'm very excited. They're going to come in ready to play because we knocked them out of the playoffs. Everybody's healthy. I'm just looking forward to seeing what we can do.
It's totally different. I've never been around a quarterback like that. The leadership, the way he helps you as a receiver, stuff that he looks for. I feel like I've become a better receiver as well as becoming smarter to the game.
Learning the game more. Whatever he knows, he tries to help us out to know the same thing he knows, so we can all be on the same page.
It's not that I need to lift my game. I just need to make better chances of my opportunities. I've had a couple passes that I could have caught that could have been big plays. Mostly it's just me getting out there and getting into the flow. I had some injuries the first two years that were setbacks for me. If I stay healthy and just get out there with the flow, I think I'll be fine.
I can't predict anything. But I think we're prepared for the path that's going to be in our way, and we're going to go out there every week and do our best no matter who our opponent is. And hopefully we win the AFC West. I think everybody is excited about this year.
I think it's a big, big absence. He's one of the best in the game. He's all over the field all the time. I think it's going to be a big miss. Nothing against (Ryan) Mundy (who will replace Clark), but Ryan Clark is a great player. I trained with him in Arizona a couple times. It's all about football for him. He goes out and plays like it's his last game.
I feel like I'm one of the most humble guys in the game. I don't do any trash talking. I'm not one of those receivers that if they don't have any catches is going to say anything about it. I play the game just to win. I'm all about winning.
Since John Elway retired after leading Denver to a second consecutive Super Bowl victory after the 1998 season, the Broncos have had five quarterbacks as their primary starters -- Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jake Cutler, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow -- none of whom came close to matching Elway's success. Now comes Peyton Manning, who, though he is 36 and coming back from spinal neck fusion that forced him to miss the 2011 season, has known almost nothing but winning in the NFL. Here is how those Broncos' QBs measure up against Manning.
As a member of the Colts, Manning faced the Steelers five times. He was 2-2 in the regular season and 0-1 in the playoffs (Pittsburgh won a 2005 divisional round game). He is familiar with Pittsburgh coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense -- no doubt, Manning went all the way back to the 2002 season this week to study tape of Pittsburgh's 28-10 win over the Colts -- so nothing he sees should disconcert him.
The Steelers will not be at full strength on defense. In addition to Clark being ruled out of the game, pass rushing linebacker James Harrison isn't expected to play after missing his second consecutive day of practice Friday. Harrison had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 15. Jason Worilds, another linebacker, still is recovering from offseason wrist surgery that forced him to miss the preseason.
Still, Manning knows it will be a challenge to beat the team which led the league in scoring defense last season.
"Some things don't change. You know Pittsburgh is going to have an excellent defense," Manning told Denver reporters. "We'll certainly have our hands full."
This figures to be one of the most entertaining season openers. It should be a competitive, low-scoring game that could go down to the wire, but Manning will emerge victorious in his first regular season game with horse heads instead of horseshoes on his helmet.