ATLANTA — The iconic Peyton Manning of memory — the maestro, flawlessly guiding his team — seemingly resurrected itself in Week 1 of the NFL season with a highly efficient victory over a perennially tough defense.
On Monday night, Manning showed he, too, has a human, erring side, as he fell back to earth by throwing three first-quarter interceptions and suffered the first loss of his comeback (and first loss as a Denver Bronco), 27-21 to Atlanta at the Georgia Dome.
Manning’s three shocking interceptions came on his first eight passing attempts, all within the game’s first 8 minutes, 5 seconds. He was asked if he remembered throwing that many interceptions so early in a game.
“Oh, I’m sure I have,” the 36-year-old said. “When you’ve played as long as I have, you’ve seen about everything . . . I’ve thrown six of them, too. I could’ve done that.”
Manning refused to make excuses, saying he made three poor decisions, three throws into coverage. Asked if he felt any different physically (Manning reportedly has lost a few miles per hour off his fastball as a result of the neck injury that sidelined him for all of last season and ultimately led Indianapolis to cut him) he simply offered a terse, “no.”
Manning finished 24 of 37 for 241 yards and one touchdown to go with the three interceptions for a paltry 58.5 rating, causing Broncos coach John Fox to strike a cautionary note.
“You’ve got to remember, Peyton Manning’s a new quarterback in our system, adjusting to teammates, adjusting to the things we’re doing,” Fox said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
The Falcons defense didn’t make it easy on Manning, either. Head coach Mike Smith said the Falcons worked hard to disguise their coverages against the future Hall of Famer.
On Manning’s second attempt of the game, he looked deep to his right for tight end Jacob Tamme but Atlanta safety William Moore stepped in front of the pass, intercepting it at the Denver 34. Moore returned it to the Denver 1 and three plays later the Falcons had a 7-0 lead.
“I was kind of in a zone coverage, just kind of spying him,” Moore said. “I was watching his eyes and he just took me right to the play.”
Moore was asked what he would have thought if he were told beforehand that Atlanta would intercept Manning so early and so often.
“Uh, I wouldn’t say it’s hard to believe, but I’d still be like ‘It’d be hard to believe,'” he said, “especially the way he played against Pittsburgh. He had us nervous a little bit, watching film.”
In that 31-19 Week 1 victory over the Steelers, Manning completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns without an interception for a 129.2 rating.
That Manning was nowhere to be found in the first quarter. The Broncos’ second possession ended the same way as the first. Again, Manning looked deep for Tamme but this time Thomas DeCoud produced an almost identical pick. Atlanta converted that interception into a field goal for a 10-0 lead.
“He’s just such a good quarterback and he has so much confidence in his arm that sometimes that can get him in trouble and I think we capitalized on those opportunities,” DeCoud said.
Asked for an estimation of Manning’s arm, DeCoud said, “There were a couple of errant balls out there but that’s not for me to make that assumption of judgment.”
Manning’s third interception of the quarter might have been the most humbling. Facing a depleted Falcons’ secondary — starter Brent Grimes was lost for the season to an Achilles’ tendon injury in Week 1, then starting corner Asante Samuel briefly left the game with a neck injury, forcing in reserve Robert McClain, who had not played a defensive snap since 2010 — Manning fell victim to McClain, who earned his first career interception with 6:55 left in the quarter.
Manning avoided mistakes in the second half, helping to lead the Broncos to two fourth-quarter touchdowns. The second came on a nine-play drive that lasted 2:48 and was vintage Manning. He drove Denver 45 yards to draw within 27-21 with 3:25 left in regulation. On fourth and goal from the 2, Manning called a run to Willis McGahee, who got in the end zone easily.
Manning said after the game that he thought victory was still possible at that point, but Atlanta ran out the clock, driving for two first downs.
“I’d love to have all three of them back,” Manning said of the interceptions. “I’ll learn from them. I’m sure our team will learn from them and I hope our team will be better for it.”