Manning leads Broncos vs. Falcons
Manning and the Broncos visit Ryan and the Falcons on Monday night, with both quarterbacks looking to lead their teams to a 2-0 start.
Returning from a 20-month layoff that involved four surgeries on his neck, Manning was stellar in a 31-19 win over Pittsburgh last Sunday night, going 19 of 26 for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
Entering last week, Manning, who was cut by Indianapolis in March, discussed the difficulty of playing with a new organization, but he showed little rust in his first action since Jan. 8, 2011, when the Colts lost 17-16 to New York in an AFC wild-card matchup.
"It's just one game. I try to keep it in perspective," Manning said. "I know how hard I've worked to get to this point. I know how much help that I've gotten along the way, from a lot of people. I'm very grateful for that. It's special. I will definitely say it's special."
The future Hall of Famer threw his first touchdown, and 400th of his career, in the third quarter on a 71-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas. Manning led three 80-yard scoring drives, but his success wasn't a surprise to coach John Fox.
"I've seen improvement every time he's gone out, going back to the beginning of preseason and even before that," Fox said Monday. "Physically, mentally, him adjusting to new teammates, new coaches, I think he's been tremendous."
Like Manning, Thomas is looking to prove doubters wrong after two injury-shortened campaigns with the Broncos. He finished with 551 yards receiving and four touchdowns in 11 games — five starts — last year.
While surgery to remove pins in his pinky led to a late start for Thomas, his potential was again evident in Week 1, with the former first-round draft pick recording five catches for 110 yards. He had two 100-plus yard receiving games previously in his career, both in 2011.
"He's made me a smarter receiver and taught me how to run routes the way he wanted them, the way to get open," Thomas said of Manning. "Basically, I had to change up some things that I wasn't doing before. Working with Peyton helped me."
The Falcons haven't had to worry about a learning curve. Ryan is in his fifth season running Atlanta's offense, and he started 2012 with a 40-24 win at Kansas City last Sunday.
The Falcons averaged 6.8 yards per play and finished with 376 yards overall. Ryan completed 23 of 31 passes for 299 yards, accounting for three touchdowns through the air and one rushing score.
Julio Jones made six catches for 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"We felt like we had all the tools," center Todd McClure said. "We knew if we executed right, we could have that type of production. But going into the game, we probably didn't think it would be that easy or we'd put up that many points."
Jones, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, had 54 catches with eight touchdowns and 959 yards last year — first and second among rookies, respectively.
Ryan and Jones could have more difficulty opening up the passing game against Champ Bailey and the Denver defense, which held Ben Roethlisberger to 209 yards passing — 98 in the second half.
However, that could open up more room for Michael Turner, who was limited to 32 yards on 11 carries in the opener.
Despite the lack of success in the running game, Atlanta wasn't overly concerned.
"We want to be able to run the ball effectively," coach Mike Smith said. "But with our game plan, that was not the main thing we wanted to accomplish."
While Week 1 for the offense couldn't have gone better for Atlanta, the Falcons lost star cornerback Brent Grimes to a season-ending Achilles injury.
Christopher Owens, one of the players expected to have to step up with Grimes out, is looking forward to facing Manning.
"This is like facing Mike Tyson in a 12-round bout, but I'm excited for the opportunity," Owens said. "It's unfortunate what happened with Grimes, but the next man's got to step up, and that's the mentality you've got to have with this team."
This is the first meeting between these clubs since Denver's 24-20 road win Nov. 16, 2008, when then-rookie Ryan threw for 250 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
That was one of only four losses in 30 career regular-season home games for Ryan.