Peyton Manning proved, once again, why you can’t bury him or the 6-0 Broncos
Grab yourself a chicken parm sandwich and sing along to the Nationwide jingle:
Is he the same caliber of quarterback as in the past? No. Age (39) and a series of neck injuries have left Manning a physical shell of what he once was.
But is he still good enough to win a Super Bowl if surrounded by a quality supporting cast and dominating defense? I’m not going to doubt him after watching Denver improve to 6-0 following a 26-23, overtime road win over Cleveland.
In what is unfolding as one of his least productive seasons statistically, it was easy to count Manning out again Sunday after his struggles through the first 3 1/2 quarters. Running back Ronnie Hillman couldn’t snare a Manning pass that was thrown slightly behind him, leading to Karlos Dansby’s interception and 35-yard return for a touchdown that gave Cleveland a 20-16 lead with 8:07 remaining.
At that point, it didn’t seem so preposterous at all that last week a Broncos media member asked coach Gary Kubiak whether unproven backup Brock Osweiler should replace Manning.
Manning’s unit had gone 26 straight series without posting a touchdown. The defense and special teams have actually scored more points this season than the offense.
Although there are other failings in Denver — an inconsistent running game, injuries that have hit an already shaky offensive line and a new scheme that has yet to click – Manning had become the lightning rod for almost all criticism. CBS analyst Dan Fouts, who is a Hall of Fame quarterback himself, said the lack of velocity on Manning’s passes was akin to watching a "dying quail."
Manning, though, immediately proved his arm isn’t quite dead yet. On his very next snap, Manning delivered a perfect pass that wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders caught in stride down the Browns sideline for a 75-yard touchdown to put Denver on top once again.
The rest of the game featured both good Peyton and bad Peyton. The bad included a lob in overtime that linebacker Barkevious Mingo intercepted to give Cleveland possession at the Broncos 39-yard line.
The good came after Denver’s defense forced a Browns punt. Manning completed all four of his passes on the ensuing drive. Three consecutive completions on short tosses to tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas netted 33 yards and moved the Broncos into Cleveland territory. Denver’s rushing attack then came to life, putting the Broncos in position for Brandon McManus’ 34-yard field goal to win the game.
As ugly as Manning and the offense has played at times, the Broncos are running away with the AFC West once again and are putting themselves in position to claim home-field advantage during the playoffs. The Broncos can help their cause in that regard by winning home games against two other undefeated AFC squads in New England (Nov. 29/Week 12) and Cincinnati (Dec. 28/Week 16).
Ideally for the Broncos by then, Denver will be healthier and have successfully used next week’s bye to tinker with the parts of Kubiak’s West Coast-style system that aren’t paying dividends with Manning at quarterback.
The Broncos still probably won’t be an offensive juggernaut. The reality is this club will be carried by its defense and probably win more games in gritty fashion than when Manning was orchestrating the most prolific passing offense in NFL history two seasons ago.
"We are not playing well at times," Manning said in his postgame interview. "But we are playing well enough to win."
That’s what matters the most even if Manning isn’t winning style points in the twilight of his career.
Pittsburgh 25, Arizona 13: Landry Jones was so dreadful in the preseason that Pittsburgh signed Michael Vick as its backup quarterback once Bruce Gradkowski went down with a season-ending hand injury. Yet when Vick went down with a strained hamstring in the third quarter, Jones channeled the spirit of former Steelers reserves Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon by sparking the Steelers to victory. Jones, who hadn’t appeared in a regular season game since being a 2013 fourth-round draft choice, completed 8 of 12 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns against a Cardinals defense that entered with an NFL-high 11 interceptions. It became obvious that offensive coordinator Todd Haley could open up the playbook in the passing game far more with Jones than Vick as Ben Roethlisberger continues to recover from a knee injury. It also didn’t hurt that Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who was suspended the first four games under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, caught six passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns with his 88-yard score clinching the win.
New York Jets 34, Washington 20: Robert Griffin III, anyone? Kirk Cousins once again failed to show he is the answer as Washington’s quarterback. The Redskins (2-4) have lost all four games in which Cousins has thrown multiple interceptions. In his defense, the Redskins on Sunday were without seven injured starters that included wide receiver DeSean Jackson, running back Matt Jones and left tackle Trent Williams. Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is no Joe Namath, but he does know how to feed Brandon Marshall. The latter became the first Jets player with four straight 100-yard receiving games since Don Maynard during Namath’s heyday in 1968.
Cincinnati 34, Buffalo 21: Forget the hype about Dallas fielding the NFL’s best offensive line. That honor belongs to Paul Alexander’s unit in Cincinnati. The Bengals held Buffalo’s vaunted defense without a sack and paved the way for a 128-yard rushing performance by the offense. Any media-generated silliness about a potential quarterback controversy in Buffalo was quashed when E.J. Manuel flopped in place of the injured Tyrod Taylor (knee).
Detroit 37, Chicago 34 (overtime): Thanks to the efforts of Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, Detroit (1-5) is now assured of avoiding the same ignominy as the winless 2008 Lions. Stafford and Johnson finally got on the same page again by connecting six times for 166 yards and one touchdown. Stafford’s leaping 57-yard grab in overtime put Detroit in position for the game-winning field goal that ended Chicago’s two-game winning streak.
Miami 38, Tennessee 10: Dan Campbell couldn’t have enjoyed a more successful debut as Miami’s interim head coach. The Dolphins displayed three things that were sorely lacking under Campbell’s predecessor Joe Philbin during a 1-3 start: A strong running game, a fierce pass rush and – maybe most telling – intensity.
Minnesota 16, Kansas City 10: The Chiefs kept Adrian Peterson (26 carries for 60 yards) in check but had no answer for Vikings rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who followed up on a strong showing last week with a seven-catch, 129-yard outing. Chiefs running back Charcandrick West lost a critical fourth-quarter fumble in his first start replacing Jamaal Charles (knee/injured reserve).
Houston 31, Jacksonville 20: With the Dolphins having already fired Joe Philbin, Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley is now the head coach on the hottest seat. The Jaguars (1-5) are 8-30 under his watch and essentially out of the playoff race in October for the fifth straight season. The defense, which is Bradley’s forte, continues to underachieve and, as evidenced by a brutal second-quarter interception at the Texans goal-line, Blake Bortles is a long ways away from being the franchise quarterback Jacksonville hoped when making him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft. For the Texans, DeAndre Hopkins remains on fire with his fourth consecutive 100-yard receiving game to tie Andre Johnson’s franchise record.
San Francisco 25, Baltimore 20: The 49ers entered ranked 32nd in scoring and passing offense, which made facing Baltimore’s porous defense a welcome relief. Colin Kaepernick hit on touchdown passes of 76 and 21 yards to Torrey Smith and Quinton Patton respectively as well as a 51-yard completion to Anquan Boldin. The worst start in Ravens franchise history (1-5) continued as a desperation Joe Flacco pass fell incomplete in the 49ers end zone on the game’s final play.
Carolina 27, Seattle 23: Just like in Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks have forgotten how to finish games. Seattle has led in the fourth quarter of every game this season yet sits at 2-4 after Carolina (5-0) finished its fourth 80-yard drive with a 26-yard Cam Newton touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen in the final minute. Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula deserves consideration for upcoming head coaching vacancies. Shula has done a brilliant job developing Newton into a bona fide franchise quarterback and helping the Panthers overcome mediocre offensive line talent as well as the preseason loss of top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a knee injury.
Green Bay 27, San Diego 20: Normally, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback on the field when he plays. That wasn’t the case Sunday. San Diego’s Philip Rivers was absolutely brilliant while setting franchise single-game records for passing yards (503), attempts (65) and completions (43). Rivers, though, ran out of magic when his fourth-down throw to Danny Woodhead was knocked away at the goal-line by rookie cornerback Damarious Randall with 15 seconds remaining.