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NFL: Peyton Manning's reality check

Best days of the veteran quarterback are behind him despite what some media say, writes Mike Tierney.

Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback, had a poor game against the Falcons and was close to being replaced. Tami Chappell / Reuters
Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback, had a poor game against the Falcons and was close to being replaced. Tami Chappell / Reuters

Here is how it works in the NFL:

A player has a good game, as defined by initial media stories. Those reports enter the 24/7 news cycle and are whipped up by pundits trying to out-shout each other. A wind tunnel effect kicks in, speeding up the original "good" game evaluation into "very good", then into "great".

By the time he next takes the field, the Hall of Fame is just short of asking the player to send his shoes from the good-turned-great game for bronzing. (Conversely, the week interim allows for a subpar performance to inflate into a consensus that the offending player be waived.)

In his season opener, Peyton Manning looked impressive for a guy whose previous game that mattered was 20 months earlier. Reborn as a Denver Bronco after four neck operations, he threw 26 passes, completing 19 for 253 yards and two touchdowns, in Denver's win.

It did not take long for sweeping sports cliches to attach themselves. "Picked up where he left off … Has not skipped a beat … As good as ever".

Manning cautioned that he had not regained his old form. But this became such a feel-good story that objectivity was lost in the process. One could plainly see that his passes, while mostly accurate, contained less zip. So, if he were equal to the pre-surgeries Manning, his already high quarterback IQ must be in the clouds.

Well, against the Atlanta Falcons, Manning misread coverages as if he were football illiterate, and his floaters were picked off three times in the first eight minutes. From there, he showed flashes of his former self and finished 24 of 37 for 241 yards and a TD in defeat.

Afterward, Manning hinted that the interceptions were not entirely his fault, which is usually the case. "Each turnover has its own story that nobody wants to hear," he said, "so I've got to take care of the ball better. I won't make any excuse for it. We made poor decisions - three throws into coverage."

Tellingly, the Broncos coach John Fox had the rookie Brock Osweiler warming up. Fox said the back-up would have been called upon only for a desperate long pass, preferring "a 20-year-old arm versus a 36-year-old arm".

A few years ago, it would have been unfathomable to see Manning leave a game with the outcome on the line. That Fox was considering it suggests he does not believe Peyton has picked up where he left off. Or is as good as ever. "You know he is going to get better," said Fox, which is probable, with all parties still in the get-acquainted phase.

But he is unlikely to ever again be considered the best. No player is immune to the ravages of age and multiple surgeries.

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