Peyton Manning has been telling us all along not to rush to judgment, urging us to remember that though he is on the field for the Denver Broncos, he is still a work in progress. During Monday night's 27-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, his words proved to be true.
Manning threw three first-quarter interceptions and the Falcons jumped out to a 20-0 lead. Being the ultimate competitor that he is, Manning fought back, helping Denver get to within one score in the fourth quarter. But the Falcons ran out the clock, handing Manning his first regular-season defeat since Dec. 5, 2010.
It was certainly not a pretty game for Manning. In spite of his Week 1 success against the Pittsburgh Steelers, his overall game is not yet nearly what it once was. His mind is as sharp as ever, but his arm -- and his ability to drive the ball downfield -- is still off.
Manning should be scouted like a rookie quarterback whose strengths and weaknesses have yet to be fully revealed. Opponents preparing to face Manning based on how he played with the Indianapolis Colts are just wasting their time. This is a new Manning, one who needs to be evaluated on his merits today. His performance in the first two games of the season can serve as a baseline in terms of judging what kind of throws Manning can and can't make.
When playing Manning in the past, opposing defenses wanted to get into the paint, which is the area directly behind the center and guards and in front of the drop of the quarterback. Knowing sacks were hard to come by, they were hoping that by getting into the paint, they could force Manning to move to his right or left, possibly disrupting his throws or hindering his accuracy.
Based on how Manning has played so far this season, getting into the paint is more important now than ever, because he does not currently have the arm strength to drive the ball without using his lower body. Defensive linemen who can get into the paint can prevent Manning from getting much zip on the ball.
Opposing defenses are going to challenge Manning's arm strength in other ways, too. They should start to play more tightly guarded man-to-man against Manning, forcing him to throw with pinpoint accuracy.
His mind and competitive nature are still vintage Manning. He'll have to continue using those qualities and keep adjusting his game. For now, he'll have to throw more balls on time and make quicker decisions. Like Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who also does not drive the ball well, Manning will have to throw passes where only his intended receiver can make a play.
Manning is a student of the game, and he surely will build on and learn from his experiences so far this season.
THINGS I LOVED
I loved the Arizona Cardinals going on the road and taking down the defending AFC champions. The Cardinals beat the New England Patriots at their own game, making crucial plays at critical junctures. Whenever the Patriots' offense looked like it might be finding a rhythm, the Cardinals' defense made a big play. That unit is the real deal. We're used to Arizona's defense excelling at home; it has now impressed on the road, as well.
I loved the mindset of Eli Manning, which was like that of a great golfer. Whether they play a given hole well or poorly, great golfers must learn to forget what happened and move on to the next hole. Manning never lets a bad series, a bad quarter or a bad half affect his outlook the next time he touches the ball. Like most of his New York Giants teammates, he's mentally tough enough to overcome almost any kind of adversity. With outstanding difference makers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz catching the ball, Manning finished a 41-34 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 510 passing yards and three touchdowns despite getting picked off three times in the first half.
Speaking of mental toughness, I loved how the Philadelphia Eagles finished strong on Sunday. The Eagles spent all training camp trying to get tougher, and it has paid dividends in the form of consecutive comeback victories. Quarterback Michael Vick turns the ball over, but he also makes plays, leading crucial late-game scoring drives in Week 1's 17-16 win over the Cleveland Browns and Week 2's 24-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. An ugly win is still a win. This increased tenacity should benefit the Eagles later in the season.
THINGS I HATED
I hated the distraction of the referee situation. I have not complained about the officials, feeling that the replacements have not been that bad and knowing that even the regular officials made mistakes. But after Week 2, it's clear we need the regular officials back, especially if we are concerned about player safety, as the replacements have little or no control of the game. The Monday-night Broncos-Falcons matchup represented perhaps their worst effort, proving beyond a doubt that we need to end this lockout.
I hated that the Kansas City Chiefs continued to fall short of expectations. I thought the Chiefs would be a better team this season, but they looked bad in the preseason and have been even worse through Week 2. My belief in the Chiefs stemmed from the fact that some key players -- most notably safety Eric Berry and running back Jamaal Charles -- would be healthy after missing most of 2011 with injuries. Yet so far, the Chiefs have looked horrible, getting blown out by the Atlanta Falcons and the Buffalo Bills. Many Chiefs fans want to blame quarterback Matt Cassel, but Kansas City's defense has been bad, allowing 75 points in two games.
I hated how the Oakland Raiders were absolutely whipped by the Miami Dolphins. In fairness to the Raiders, following a Monday-night game with a cross-country Sunday-afternoon matchup is not easy. But of greater significance than their travel schedule is the Raiders' lack of people in the secondary who can cover, especially at the cornerback position. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill took full advantage of this deficiency. Oakland also has no running game, having averaged just two yards per carry this season. If the Raiders want to compete in the AFC West, they'll need to find a few corners and a ground attack. At this point, Oakland's hopes of making the playoffs might not be realistic.
THINGS ON MY MIND
» The Baltimore Ravens' defense is not as good this year as it has been in the past. The Ravens badly miss the injured Terrell Suggs, and cannot generate a pass rush without scheming and blitzing. They have excellent cornerbacks, but they need a better pass rush.
» Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson looked sluggish in his first start, but against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, he looked fresh and explosive, particularly as a receiver. His power is impressive, but so is his instant burst and ability to run in the open field.
» Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano's teams have played hard since his days at Rutgers. He attracted a lot of attention (especially from Giants coach Tom Coughlin) for having his players aggressively defend a kneel-down play at the end of Sunday's loss to New York. But if you watched his Rutgers squads, you saw that this end-of-game scenario frequently played out, especially when the Scarlet Knights were down by one score. I am not defending his actions, only stating that this has long been his way of handling that kind of situation.
» The Tennessee Titans cannot run the ball, and running back Chris Johnson looks bad. But more alarming than that: The entire Titans team looks soft, like it has lost its physical edge. In the past, playing the Titans meant getting a physical battering -- but not anymore.
» The rookie quarterbacks looked much better in Week 2 than they did in Week 1. Expect the highs and lows to continue coming for all except the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who looks capable of doing anything. Both Tannehill and Browns rookie Brandon Weeden looked like new players in their second regular-season game.
» The Dallas Cowboys' loss to the Seattle Seahawks is not a bad one -- playing the 'Hawks in the Pacific Northwest is a huge challenge and it's hard to pull out a win. The NFC West is not a cupcake division.
» It will be tough for the New England Patriots to replace the injured Aaron Hernandez, who is not really a tight end and not really a receiver, but is definitely a crucial offensive weapon. His low ankle sprain will probably take four to six weeks to heal. In his absence, the Pats will have to readjust their offense, because they currently have no one on their team capable of doing what Hernandez can do. (UPDATE: New England reportedly signed Kellen Winslow Jr. on Tuesday.)
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.