Despite his status as perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Peyton Manning has had to overcome a few negative issues throughout his career. There was the "He can't win the big one" ding, which he put to rest with the Indianapolis Colts' 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. It was about that time that Manning also put to rest his well-known issues with 3-4 defenses in general, and the New England Patriots specifically. And he has managed to destroy any ideas that he was done after multiple neck and shoulder surgeries in 2011 -- Manning's numbers over the last two seasons with the Denver Broncos have certainly put an end to those.
Still, there was one last perception war to fight -- that Manning tends to fold when the weather outside is less than delightful. Coming into last Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans, according to ESPN’s Stats & Info, Manning’s teams had lost seven of the 10 regular-season and postseason games in which the temperature was 32 degrees or colder. He had thrown 12 interceptions in those games to 11 touchdowns, his completion percentage was 59.4 in those games (career percentage: 65.4), and his 214.1 yards per game total was quite a bit below his career average of 269.5.
The point was made because the forecast for Denver during that game was the kind of cold that has always bedeviled Manning, or so the legend said. Of course, the Broncos were hearing none of it, especially offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
“I’ve only been around him two years, but the thing that probably pisses me off more than anything is the fact that I don’t want anybody else as my quarterback," Gase said last week. "I’m going to go in with him every Sunday and it’s a great feeling to have. When you have him back there, you know your chances of winning are pretty good. When you don’t have a guy like that, and I’ve been in that spot a lot, and that sucks. So, I’ll take [Manning] any day of the week.”
In a game that saw a high temperature of 18 degrees, Manning played about as well as any quarterback could under any circumstances. In Denver's 51-28 win, he completed 39-of-59 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns. All of those touchdowns came in the red zone, where he was 10-of-18 for 61 yards. He hit nine different receivers, and each of his touchdowns was caught by a different target. And he did so against a defense with two of the best statistical cornerbacks in the NFL (Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty), and a front seven with a knack for taking quarterbacks down. According to Pro Football Focus' game charting, those two great corners allowed 13 catches for 193 yards and two touchdowns -- Verner hadn't allowed a touchdown all season before this game. Manning wasn't sacked ... in fact, he was barely pressured.
If Manning wanted to blow that story apart, he could not have done better. Based on his postgame comments on Denver radio station KOA, he desperately desired a surprise ending to that tale.
"One you get out there on the field, and you have those long drives, you have some momentum. Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don't shine," he said Sunday, when asked about the cold-weather thing. "I felt pretty good out there today."
Tennessee's defenders squawked about some of the penalties they received (and they had reason to at times), but the conclusion was clear -- this was one of the game's greats at his highest peak of performance.
“Without a doubt," McCourty said after the game. "Their combination of Manning at quarterback with the weapons that they have on the outside is definitely the toughest offense that we have played thus far. It was tough out there. The refs called it really tight on the outside, so it was tough for us as DBs to be more aggressive. We tried to adapt, but we just didn’t do a good enough job. As a defense we just didn’t play well enough.”
Manning's 39 completions set a Broncos franchise record, and it's the second-most most he's ever had in an NFL game, exceeded only by the 40 completions he had against the Houston Texans in 2010, his final year with the Colts. Many of those completions were short ones, but Tennessee anticipated that and played accordingly. Similar to the strategy the Seattle Seahawks employed far more effectively against Drew Brees in their 34-7 win over the Saints two Mondays ago, Tennessee used coverages designed to dare Manning to throw to the intermediate and deep levels -- they played aggressive coverage underneath, set their linebackers to the flats, didn't blitz often and either jammed the Broncos' outside receivers or played bail-and-trail coverage in order to avoid giving up anything cheap. Manning had to earn every yard he got against this quality defense, and man, did he ever. He was 14-of-22 on throws of 10-plus yards, per PFF, and 4-of -8 on targets of 20 yards or more. The only Broncos who seemed to be affected by the weather were Manning's receivers, whose seven drops accounted for a decent percentage of his 20 incompletions.
Manning started completing those deep throws with 11:43 left in the first quarter. The Broncos had 2nd-and-6 from their own 42-yard line, and Eric Decker up top with Verner on solo coverage. The Titans had safety Bernard Pollard on Verner's side, but it was Pollard's job to help the linebackers out with tight end Julius Thomas. On the other side of the field, McCourty and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh patrolled the nickel zone with Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas in their sights.
At the snap, Manning faked play-action out of the Pistol formation to running back Knowshon Moreno as Decker (yellow box, below) ran right up the numbers. At the Tennessee 42-yard line, Decker ran a little comeback to the left sideline, leaving Verner to clean up, because he had estimated a deeper route. Pollard had not provided help up top, and deep safety Michael Griffin could only run late and helplessly to that side. Manning had given a quick look to the right to freeze the defenders up the middle, but the play was to Decker all the way, and Manning had an easy cross-body throw because Decker ran the right tail of a route, and Verner couldn't keep up.
That was the standout play in a 13-play, 74-yard drive that tied the score at 7-7. However, Denver had trouble getting the ball into the end zone through most of the first half -- there was an amazing throw from Manning to Decker with 1:06 left in the first quarter that looked like a touchdown at first, but was reversed upon replay because Decker didn't cross the plane. Manning tried to fit a seven-yarder to Welker two plays later, but it was called a no-catch, and Denver had to settle for a field goal. Halfway through the second quarter, the Titans had a 21-10 lead after Shonn Greene busted off a 28-yard touchdown run, and that's when Manning went to work. Denver ate up 5:08 of clock in the second half of the second quarter on a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive, and the deciding play here was a 30-yard completion to Welker with 2:48 remaining in the first half.
The Broncos had 2nd-and-16 at the Tennessee 43-yard line, and once again, play action from Manning set the tone. When he faked a cross handoff to running back Montee Ball, Sensabaugh was caught doing double duty from the nickel spot -- while he was reading Ball, Welker (again, yellow box, below) blew right by him. This left Sensabaugh and the linebackers to try and play catchup (again), and this time, Manning's receiver outran his defenders as opposed to cutting underneath. It was a different version of the same principle -- overwhelm your opponent with numbers and angles, and win every time your opponent makes a mistake. Manning made another great deep throw, but this was a formation and execution win for Denver's offense.
As he has throughout his career, Welker inherently understood where the gaps were, and how to take advantage of them.
Denver ended the half with a 21-20 deficit after kicker Matt Prater booted an NFL-record 64-yard field goal with time expiring. The Broncos came back out and outscored the Titans 31-7 in the second half with a perfectly balanced gameplan that included several more burners from Manning.
For sheer touch and velocity, it's tough to top his 20-yard touchdown pass to Decker with 9:19 left in the game. That score put the Broncos up 44-28, and anyone still questioning Manning's arm strength -- or his ability to exhibit that strength no matter the conditions -- had probably already gone home by that point.
The Titans tried a little zone handoff in coverage on the Thomas-Decker side, but that didn't bother Manning -- he seemed to be more interested in what Julius Thomas, running an inside route from the formation, would do to Tennessee's nickel coverage. Griffin was led inside by the route before he bailed to try and give Verner help with Decker on the outside right. Verner was having his own issues -- he backed off to play bail, and Decker's (yellow box, below) little stutter inside on the way to the end zone turned the cornerback around.
From there, it was on Manning to make what may have been the best throw of the day. From a timing and anticipation perspective, it doesn't get much better than this.
“I’m sure he’s tired of hearing it," Julius Thomas said after the win of Manning and the cold-weather stuff. "He’s been playing so great all season, he’s been playing great his entire career and just to hear people nitpicking about something like the cold; for him to be able to come out there and put 50 on the board and put that whole cold thing to bed, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see that behind him tomorrow.”
Unless some sort of disaster befalls the Broncos in the next three weeks, they're going to wrap up the AFC's top seed, which would actually be a detriment if their quarterback was affected by cold weather. As he proved against the Titans, Peyton Manning isn't just ready to bust that myth in half -- he seems almost eager to face that challenge again.