Peyton Manning is back.
All the questions, criticism and wondering about Manning at 39-years old can fade into the background. The Sheriff politely shut up all the critics with his performance on Sunday Night Football, leading his Broncos out of the OK Corral and to the 24-12 victory over the Detroit Lions.
Manning was simply the quarterback maestro we’ve seen for 17 years at the NFL level; leading his team, teaching them on the fly and making precision passes on a whim.
Peyton the perfectionist wasn’t perfect – he did have the one interception, which was miraculously batted up in the air by All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata — but he sure was close.
At least, he was vintage Manning, leading the Broncos offense to three touchdowns and a field goal as well as the 3-0 start.
For the first time all season long, Manning looked comfortable in Gary Kubiak‘s offense. Of course, the number off shotgun and pistol formation plays compared to those under the center were overwhelmingly in favor of passing sets, as was the play-calling. It seems, Kubiak has adapted to fit better with the all-time great as his quarterback, while still sticking to his guns — like running the ball and running the clock late – which just may work perfectly in the long run.
While the Broncos all but abandoned the run Sunday night – rushing a mere 19 times for a minuscule 41 yards – Manning was able to shine in prime time. He’s notably shrunk under the spotlight before, but not in this big win over Detroit.
The offense sputtered out of the gates, turning their first three drives into zero points and the interception, but Manning found rhythm in the second quarter.
Playing nearly exclusively out of the shotgun, No. 18 constructed an 80-yard touchdown drive in which he connected with five different receivers, and it was capped off by Ronnie Hillman‘s touchdown run. The biggest play was a 26-yard catch-and-run by tight end Virgil Green, who ran through two defenders and refused to go down before hitting the Lions’ two yard line.
With a mere 1:03 on the clock in the half, Manning went to work and was the maestro of a half-ending touchdown drive. Sure, on 4th and 1, he under-threw Demaryius Thomas on the tremendous 45-yard touchdown — which Thomas played perfectly to control his body like a gymnast and snag the ball like a power forward hitting the glass — but the result of the play pushed the Broncos ahead 14-6 at the break.
It wasn’t a perfect throw, but it was ballsy and the gamble resulted in the turning point of the game as well as a huge momentum boost going into halftime.
At that point, it was clear the Broncos were going to win the contest. Manning had his confidence back, as did the Broncos No. 32 ranked offense. They were finally playing up to their potential, finding a groove in Kubiak’s scheme and having fun on the gridiron.
Talk about having fun; the 39-year old Manning jumped for joy following his touchdown to Owen Daniels with two minutes and change on the clock. He fist-pumped and smiled like a little boy on Christmas morning.
Manning got his mojo back.
All game long we saw it; the wily, old veteran had zip on his passes and was throwing spirals like a finely tuned athlete should. One of his passes was so hard it left Thomas time to only put one hand up and another surprised Emmanuel Sanders on a slant.
And on one play, he stepped up in the pocket to avoid the rush, showing his mobility, to complete a pass for a first down. On another, as he was about to be hit, he stepped up and somehow completed the ball to Justin Norwood; showing his gun-slinging abilities, too.
He was classic Manning, spreading the ball around to not only DT and Sanders, but to Green, Bennie Fowler, Norwood and nine receivers in all. He’s the smartest quarterback to ever play the position, and when he takes when the defense gives him, he wins.
Of course, even he has to take some chances; like the jump ball to DT, and another one to Sanders in the fourth quarter which the world-class receiver went up and stole out of the defensive back’s hands.
Manning’s all-in on 2015, knowing the next game isn’t promised to him or his surgically repaired neck, nor is the next season. This, simply, may be it for No. 18 and the NFL will miss him dearly.
But will everyone remember Manning as the greatest regular season quarterback in history or one of the few greats who could leave the game on top of football as a Super Bowl winner?
Time will tell, but this Broncos team is set up for Super Bowl success.
Why? Denver’s defense — with speed everywhere, the most talented cornerback trio in the NFL and a superb pass-rush — is arguably the best in the league this year. Kubiak is an intelligent coach who is involved in the game, knowing when to press officials, when to use timeouts and how to control the clock. And now, Manning has returned to his elite playing level.
But don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years.