HOUSTON – Wade Phillips took a preemptive strike at the “Peyton Manning is finished” angle Thursday.
“I know it’s going to be asked so I’m going to go ahead and make my statement,” the Houston Texans defensive coordinator said. “Peyton Manning looks like the same guy he’s always been.”
No sense poking the bear, even if it does have a neck injury.
But this, of course, is the big question as the Texans (2-0) prepare for their game against the Denver Broncos (1-1) Sunday in Denver. Manning missed all of last season with a neck injury, signed with the Broncos and looked terrific in his debut game, going 19-for-26 for 253 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Then came Week 2 in Atlanta, and Manning looked very much like a 36-year-old man with a neck injury, throwing three interceptions in the first quarter and showing no ability to push the ball down the field as he always had in what will be a Hall of Fame career.
Maybe this makes Phillips and the Texans’ defense, which has allowed an NFL-best 196 yards per game over two weeks, feel more confident than ever. And maybe that’s the case if this were practically any other quarterback facing any other team. But this is Manning, and for all of the Texans’ existence he has been like a sadistic surgeon, carving them up, removing their heart, and poking their liver for good measure.
“I remember rookie year, we were really preparing for his signals and trying to get down any things he says at the line or checks or whatever,” linebacker Brian Cushing said. “We were trying to kind of script everything he was saying. Eventually, we went into the game and he didn’t say a word. That’s just kind of the guy he is.”
That was 2009, and the Texans’ defense has come a long way since then. It ranked second in the NFL last year, and has allowed an average of just 124 passing yards in its first two games.
So it is not the same old Manning, nor is it the same old Texans defense.
“This is this year’s team,” Phillips said. “They said a lot of things about last year’s team during last year: ‘You never won a championship and you’ve never won a playoff game,’ and all those things. You make things happen for yourself. This is a big, big game for our football team.”
So far as Las Vegas is concerned, the Texans became a slight favorite (-1.5) after Manning’s performance against the Falcons, but this is the first real test for a team that spent the first two weeks clobbering maybe the NFL’s two least-effective starting quarterbacks in Dolphins rookie Ryan Tannehill and the Jaguars’ Blaine Gabbert.
Even if Manning has lost a little of his arm, he still presents the biggest challenge Houston has faced yet.
“They made almost 400 yards last week against a pretty good defense at home,” Phillips said. “I think once he got adjusted after the first quarter he played like Peyton Manning, so I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”